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Take It In: Hot or not, peppers pack a healthy punch

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Take It In: by Carol Bareuther

Pop a pickled pepper in your mouth. Or, fork into a roasted red bell pepper ratatouille. Or, pep up a pair of poached eggs with this peppery spice. Hot or not, in rainbow colors or pitch black, bean-, bell- or tidbit-shaped, peppers represent two large families of plants that can add a lot of flavor and nutrition to your diet.

Capsaicin: This is the substance that gives hot peppers like chilies and cayenne powder their  heat. There’s a whole body of research that has linked this fiery substance to health benefits that can help prevent heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, intestinal diseases and even cancer. However, a study out of China last year adds another benefit to the list: improved brain function. More specifically, when these researchers looked at more than 300 subjects age 40 and older, they found that the more capsaicin they ate, the fewer levels of substances they had in their blood that are linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. So if you had a tender tongue when you were young, you might want to see if you can tolerate a little heat in your diet as you get older. Start with mildly hot peppers, such as banana peppers and Cubanelle, followed by Anaheim peppers and poblanos. These have plenty of capsaicin, but are not mouth-scorchingly hot.

Dihydrocapsiate (DCT): Found in a strain of mild, sweet chili peppers, this substance is part of the capsaicin family. Hungarian scientists last year published a report that DCT could be a key to curbing obesity. These researchers scoured the medical literature and found nine studies that collectively showed that eating DCT in peppers increased calories burned by nearly 70 daily. Interestingly, this effect was only seen in overweight subjects, not those of normal weight. Seventy calories might not seem like much. After all, keeping everything in the diet the same and just adding a little bit of hot peppers each day, it would take seven weeks to lose a pound. However, making small changes such as adding exercise each day and boosting fruit and vegetable intake along with the peppers can make for a faster and healthy level of weight loss.

Vitamin C: One red bell pepper provides more than twice the recommended daily vitamin C and four times as much vitamin C as an orange. Back in 2008, scientists in Australia showed that the more vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables eaten, the lower the risk of prostate cancer in men. The researchers especially called out bell peppers and broccoli as potent sources of vitamin C. This duo of vegetables are ideal ingredients in a fresh vegetable salad.

Piperine: Unlike bell and chili peppers, which are in the botanic family Capsiceae, black pepper is in the family Piperaceae and eaten as a spice rather than a vegetable. As such, it’s a substance called piperine that has been shown to have health benefits. A study published earlier this year by South Korean researchers showed that in mice, there were enhanced effects in fat and carbohydrate metabolism during exercise when the diet also included this substance in black pepper. Here’s to a dash of black pepper in that pre-workout smoothie.
Variety, especially when it comes to peppers, definitely is the spice of life.

Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and freelance health and nutrition writer. Comments are welcome below.

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