Linda Crampton is an experienced teacher with an honors degree in biology. She writes about nutrition and the culture and history of food.
The Benefits of Red Peppers
Red peppers are tasty, nutritious, and healthy. They make a great addition to almost everyone’s diet. Many different varieties are available, some sweet and some hot. The peppers can be eaten raw, roasted, or ground into a spice, enjoyed as part of salads, soups, and other meals, or added to baked goods like pizza and breads.
Two of my favourite red peppers are the bell and cayenne varieties. The most common type of bell pepper is available in several attractive colours. The red form is the ripe version and is rich in nutrients. Capsaicin is the chemical that produces the hot sensation when cayenne peppers or spice are eaten. The chemical has some important health benefits. Bell peppers contain no capsaicin and have a sweet taste. Despite their different tastes, the scientific name of both the bell pepper and the cayenne pepper plant is Capsicum annuum.
“Red pepper” is a general name for peppers that are red. Many types exist. Bell and cayenne peppers are specific types and belong to the same genus and species, despite their differences. Although they are often referred to as vegetables when they're used as food, they contain seeds and are therefore fruits.
An Interesting Discovery in the New World
Black pepper is produced from the fruit of Piper nigrum, which is native to India and is a member of the family Piperaceae. The fruit is dried in the hot sun until it becomes black. The black peppercorns are then ground to form a spice.
When Christopher Columbus arrived in the new world, he encountered a red fruit whose hot and spicy taste reminded him of black pepper. He called the fruit a pepper in remembrance of the old world spice. Bell peppers are unusual compared to their relatives because they lack capsaicin and don't taste hot.
Red peppers are native to Central and South America but are grown in many parts of the world today. They are related to each other biologically. They belong to the family Solanaceae, often called the nightshade family, and are all classified in the genus Capsicum.
The common red, orange, yellow, and green bell peppers generally come from the same plant and are shown in the video above. The red form is completely ripe, the orange and yellow forms are partially ripe, and the green form is unripe. The green pepper is the least nutritious and the least sweet type. It may even be slightly bitter. Some stores sell a variety of bell pepper that is green and sweet when ripe, however.
Important Nutrients in Bell Peppers
Raw red bell peppers are a wonderful addition to salads. They add a vibrant red color that complements the color of salad greens. They also provide a crunchy texture and are packed with nutrients.
Analysis of nutrient content in a plant generally gives approximate values. Nutrient levels depend on a variety of factors, such as growing conditions, genetic variations in individual plants, and serving size. Analysis is important because it gives us a general idea of the value of a food, however.
A small and raw red bell pepper contains:
- about 158% of our daily vitamin C requirement
- about 46% of our daily vitamin A requirement. The latter vitamin exists in the form of beta-carotene, which our bodies convert into the type of vitamin A that we need.
- very good to good amounts of folate and of vitamins B6, E, and K
- smaller but still useful amounts of other vitamins and of minerals
- some dietary fiber
Bell peppers are low in fat and protein. Like all foods from plants, they contain no cholesterol. They do contain some sugar, but not as much as many other fruits. Eating a small amount of healthy oil with peppers will enhance the absorption of the fat soluble vitamins (E, K, and beta-carotene).
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Possible Benefits of Lycopene
Red bell peppers contain other carotenoids besides beta-carotene, including lycopene. In experiments carried out in laboratory containers, lycopene is an antioxidant. People who eat foods that contain lycopene appear to have a reduced incidence of some types of cancer and cardiovascular problems. However, it's not known if the lycopene itself is responsible for the beneficial effects or if they are due to the combination of nutrients in the food that contains the lycopene. This is a good example of why it's important to eat whole foods instead of taking supplements of one nutrient.
Like beta-carotene, lycopene is fat-soluble. Unlike beta-carotene, however, it isn't converted into vitamin A. Some people think that eating fat is always bad for us, but eating good fats in small to moderate amounts can be beneficial. As is the case for other fat-soluble nutrients, adding a salad oil (preferably a healthy one) to a food containing lycopene will boost the absorption of the substance.
What Are Chili Peppers?
The term “chili pepper” is frequently used with respect to red peppers. It refers to a hot pepper in the genus Capsicum. Some familiar chili peppers belong to the Capsicum annuum species, including the cayenne, jalapeño, poblano, and serrano ones.
Some hot peppers belonging to other species of Capsicum are also referred to as chili peppers. These include the tabasco pepper (Capsicum frutescens) and the habanero (Capsicum chinense). These species contain capsaicin, like the hot members of Capsicum annuum. Crosses between the different species and varieties in the genus are common.
A ripe cayenne pepper is red in color. It's important to eat limited amounts of the fruit until you discover your tolerance for its heat. Peppers containing capsaicin can produce an interesting taste and add a lively zest to a meal, but they can also irritate the mouth and digestive tract. Capsaicin is the active ingredient in pepper spray.
The cayenne pepper is so hot that it's generally eaten in the form of small amounts of ground spice, although some people do eat pieces of the intact fruit. The limited amount that's ingested also limits the intake of nutrients. Even a small quantity of ground cayenne pepper is a good source of beta-carotene, however. One teaspoon provides about 15% of our daily vitamin A requirement.
The Scoville Scale
The Scoville scale is a numerical system used to indicate how hot a pepper tastes and its irritation potential. It was created by a U.S. pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville in 1912. The Scoville value depends on the amount of capsaicin in a pepper. Bell peppers have a rating of 0 Scoville heat units (SHU). Pure capsaicin has a Scoville rating of 15,000,000 to 16,000,000 SHU. Cayenne peppers have been assigned a value of 30,000 to 50,000 SHU.
There are many variables that can affect a Scoville scale rating. Some of these include the soil in which the plant was grown, the amount of water in the plant, and genetic variation in the species. In general, though, the hottest pepper is said to be the Carolina Reaper. It has an average Scoville heat value of 1,560,000, although it's sometimes rated as high as 2,000,000 SHU.
The classic procedure used to determine the number of SHU depends on human taste and involves subjectivity as well as sensory fatigue (the decreased ability to detect a stimulus over time). Today these problems are solved by using a lab test called high performance liquid chromatography to determine hotness. The resulting number is converted to a value on the Scoville Scale.
A Guinness World Record
At the time when this article was last updated, a California Reaper held the Guinness World Record for hottest chili pepper with an official rating of 1,641,183 SHU. The pepper was created by Ed Currie. He received the award in 2017.
Two new peppers were created in 2017—the Dragon's Breath chili and Pepper X. They are said to be considerably hotter than the Carolina Reaper but haven't received an award yet.
The Dragon's Breath chili was created by a Welsh farmer named Mike Smith in cooperation with scientists from Nottingham University. The plant is owned by Neal Price. The hotness of the pepper is said to measure 2,480,000 on the Scoville scale. It was created with the aim of making a new anesthetic instead of a new food. Pepper X doesn't have an official name yet. It's said to measure 3,180,000 on the Scoville scale. It was created by Ed Currie.
Researchers at Purdue University have found that eating normal amounts of cayenne pepper reduces appetite, increases body temperature, and burns calories in people who are not used to eating it. These effects are lost once a person's body becomes used to the pepper, however.
More research is needed to discover how the pepper works in appetite reduction. Researchers also need to determine whether there is a way to maintain its effectiveness once people have become used to the spice.
Capsaicin creams may be useful, but they should be used with care due to their ability to harm delicate tissues. A doctor's advice is advisable if someone is considering using the cream for a diagnosed health problem. Safety issues, the capsaicin concentration that is most likely to be effective, and the frequency of application are important points to consider.
Capsaicin for Arthritis Pain
In clinical tests, skin creams containing capsaicin have been found to significantly reduce osteoarthritis pain in many people and to help rheumatoid arthritis as well. Capsaicin reduces the amount of substance P in the body and may also reduce inflammation. Substance P causes pain. It's a neuropeptide, or a short chain of amino acids in the nervous system. It may sound strange that we make a substance that triggers pain. Pain can sometimes be useful because it tells us that something is wrong in our body and that it needs help.
Patients may need to apply a capsaicin cream several times a day for at least two weeks to see a beneficial effect. The cream might cause a burning sensation on the skin in the early stages of use. It’s important to monitor this sensation and seek a doctor’s or pharmacist’s advice if necessary.
A capsaicin cream mustn’t come into contact with sensitive areas of the body like the eyes, where it can cause irritation. It should also be kept out of wounds. People should wash their hands after using the cream, unless it's being applied to the hands. The medication should be kept out of reach of children and pets.
Claims and sometimes limited evidence suggest that cayenne pepper or capsaicin can help other pain problems in addition to arthritis. If someone in pain or discomfort wants to know if a capsaicin cream is likely to help their condition, they should consult a doctor. Capsaicin isn't a cure, but it may make a patient feel more comfortable.
One benefit that is relatively well supported by clinical evidence is the use of capsaicin to relieve the pain of peripheral neuropathy. The term refers to nerve damage in the extremities of the body. People with diabetes are especially susceptible to the disorder. The nerve damage may cause numbness, tingling, a burning sensation, and a stabbing pain that sometimes spreads from the damaged area. A patient may also experience muscle weakness and loss of balance.
Dietary Concerns in Arthritis and Acid Reflux
Peppers—especially when they aren't completely ripe—contain a chemical called solanine. Other foods from the nightshade family contain solanine too, including tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants. Solanine is known to be dangerous at high levels but not at low ones. Some people say that one or more kinds of nightshade make their arthritis or joint pain worse. This has been attributed to the presence of solanine or a related chemical. I’ve seen no scientific evidence indicating that the plants can affect arthritis, however.
People who suffer from acid reflux disease (sometimes known as GERD or Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease) may find that spicy foods such as hot peppers are irritating and make their disorder worse. On the other hand, some people with the disorder experience no ill effects from eating the peppers. In fact, there is some evidence that hot peppers help GERD. Only a small amount of the fruit should be eaten if someone with the disorder wants to test its effects in case the food causes discomfort.
It's important that someone with joint pain or acid reflux makes a decision about whether to eat a food based on their own experience. It would be a shame to drop a healthy food from the diet if it causes no problems. For most people, any kind of red pepper is a delicious vegetable or spice that makes a great addition to meals.
- Nutrients in red peppers (sweet and raw) from SELF Nutrition Data (Data provided by the USDA, or the United States Department of Agriculture)
- Information about carotenoids (including lycopene) from Oregon State University
- Lycopene and cardiovascular disease (abstract) from the National Institutes of Health or NIH
- Scoville scale information from the Smithsonian Magazine (Note that the article was published before the latest extremely hot peppers were created. This should be kept in mind when the article says that hot peppers don't damage the mouth.)
- The Carolina Reaper award for the hottest chilli pepper from Guinness World Records
- Dragon's Breath chili facts from the BBC (British Broadcasting Company)
- Pepper X on the Scoville scale from the National Post newspaper
- Cayenne pepper and appetite from Purdue University
- Capsaicin and arthritis from Versus Arthritis (an organization formed by the union of Arthritis Care and Arthritis Research UK)
- Capsaicin and other possible treatments for peripheral neuropathy from the National Health Service (NHS)
- Diet for arthritis (including a reference to nightshades) from Versus Arthritis
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2011 Linda Crampton