IN YOUR KITCHEN: CHILLI PEPPERS
- November 19, 2015
They can make us splutter, pant, tear up, sniff and sweat, but chilli peppers can also affect our health in amazing ways, if used correctly.
Peppers appear in our diet in various forms, differing in size, colour, and strength of flavour, ranging from mild, fleshy peppers like Mexican bell peppers to intensely fiery ones.
The burning sensation you get in your mouth after eating spicy peppers is because of capsaicin, a compound found in chilli peppers.
Capsaicin does a lot more than make our food spicy, though. It belongs to a group of similar pungent compounds called vanilloids, which have gained enormous attention in research due to their possible health benefits.
However, chilli peppers have a bunch of other active compounds that nourish and protect us as well:1-3
1] Vitamin C: a powerful antioxidant, important for skin and immune function.
2] Vitamin B6: essential for energy metabolism.
3] Vitamin K1: required for blood clotting and healthy bones and kidneys.
– Potassium may reduce the risk of heart disease.4
– Copper is important for strong bones and healthy neurons.
– Carotenoids are a group of plant pigments that are also powerful antioxidants
– Beta-carotene, a type of carotenoid, is converted into vitamin A in the body.
– Violaxanthin, the major carotenoid in yellow chilli peppers, protects eyes from UV light.5
– Green chillies have a carotenoid called lutein, which decreases with maturation. It has been linked with improved eye health.2
– A compound in red chilli peppers called lycopone, which is generally found in red fruits and vegetables, protects our skin from the sun’s damaging effects, contributing to healthy skin.
Capsaicin works separately and together with these compounds to benefit us in several ways.
Chilli Pepper, Digestion and Respiration
Upon converting to it, the beta-carotene contributes to almost 10% of our daily vitamin A requirement. Vitamin A is essential for healthy mucous, which lines the nasal passages, lungs, and intestinal and urinary tract. It serves as the body’s first line of defence against pathogens.1, 6
Chilli peppers are mistakenly accused of contributing to stomach ulcers. On the contrary, they can actually help prevent them by stimulating the cells lining the stomach into secreting protective buffering juices. However, some contradictory results show the need for further research.7
Capsaicin is even being used to fight sinus congestion in small doses.8 A small-scale study showed its effectiveness in doing so through a nasal spray.9
Chilli Peppers: Pain and Weight Management
Capsaicin is known to relieve muscle, joint and nerve pain. Because of its way of desensitising the nerves, to stop pain signals, it is being studied for the treatment of pain associated with arthritis, cystitis, and diabetic neuropathy.10
Antioxidants also reduce inflammation, making chilli peppers especially good for arthritic joints.
Capsaicin can even relax blood vessels, increasing blood flow to the top layers of our skin, which gives a burning sensation similar to a balm. A capsaicin-containing cream called Zostrix has been proven to zap the pain triggered by cluster headaches. It is also being used for migraines.6 Keep in mind though that, similar to a balm, too much of capsaicin irritates the skin.
All that heat you feel after eating hot chilli peppers takes energy as well as calories to produce. Both chilli peppers and capsaicin have been shown to burn fat in some studies.11-16 But, once again, more research is required because there are contradictions.
Capsaicin and its related compounds are not a magic bullet for weight loss, but they could play a beneficial role as part of a weight management program. They are also a safer alternative to other substances used to increase metabolism rate, that are being touted as “magic weight loss secrets”.17
Chilli Peppers and Cancer
Some compounds become toxic only after reacting with certain enzymes in our body. These enzymes have been shown to be inhibited by capsaicin, which led scientists to consider capsaicin for cancer-prevention purposes.18
One study showed that a part of a population that consumed green tea and chilli peppers had a lower incidence of all cancers, compared to those who had green tea alone. This may suggest that they work collectively to lower the risk of cancer.19
However, its cancer-prevention effect may be dependent on the dose, because excessively high amounts of chilli peppers have been linked to stomach cancer.19 Until we know more, we can have it in moderation.
Chilli Peppers and Our Diet
Small dietary changes exert small effects, but cumulatively make a difference to our wellbeing.17 Chilli peppers can be added to almost anything, but here are a few ways to get creative with it:
– A little chilli pepper can really perk up an omelette, add heat to a soup, or transform an ordinary salad dressing.
– Vitamin C is lost while cooking, so chillies can sometimes be eaten raw; add jalapenos to your favourite salad.
– Minced chilli peppers in yogurt can be used as a condiment or a dip.
– Bitter greens such as kale, collards and mustard greens are well complemented with cayenne pepper and lemon juice.
Chilli pepper may put a fiery sensation on your tongue and maybe even a tear in your eye, but its remarkable effects on the body are definitely agreeable (up to a reasonable amount). Go on and add some chilli peppers to your diet – if you can handle it!
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3. USDA. National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 27. Beltsville, Maryland, USA: United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service; 2015.
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5. Salter A, et al. Phytonutrients. Wiley, 2012.
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18. Oyagbemi A, et al. Capsaicin: A novel chemopreventive molecule and its underlying molecular mechanisms of action, vol. 47, 2010.
19. Cooper R. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition 2011, 63(sup1): 90-97.
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