The desire for hot, hot, hot cuisine has transcended chili-heads and is now a national and international obsession. So how healthy is it to indulge in something that produces a potent mouth burn and may leave your body tingling all over?
Actually, eating hot peppers, or chili peppers, can provide a host of health benefits.
Mankind has enjoyed the fiery flavor of chili peppers since at least 7,000 B.C. Native to Mexico and the Americas, and botanically a fruit rather than a vegetable, chili peppers are members of the plant genus capsicum. It is the amount of a compound called capsaicin in chili peppers that gives them their heat plus their anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anti-cancer and even anti-obesity effects.
The Scoville scale is a measure of how much spicy heat a particular type of chili pepper packs. For example, a poblano pepper is relatively mild at 1,000 to 2,500 Scoville units. Serrano peppers are 10 to 20 times hotter while Habaneros have 100 to 300 times the firepower of a poblano.
Two of the hottest chili peppers in the world, measuring in at more than 1 million Scoville units, are the Bhut Jolokia or Ghost pepper and the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper.
Christopher Columbus brought the first chili peppers to Europe after his second voyage to the New World in 1493. However, it was the explorer’s physician, Diego Alvarez Chanca, who first wrote about the medicinal advantages of these fruits.
Interestingly, it is the rush of endorphins, or chemicals in the brain produced by the painful heat stimulus in chili peppers, that can make them an effective pain remedy. Studies have also suggested that capsaicin may play a role in killing off cancer cells, especially in cancer of the prostate.
In addition, researchers in 2012 at the University of California Los Angeles’ Center for Human Nutrition showed that test subjects who ate the equivalent of 1 jalapeno pepper daily burned an extra 80 to 100 calories each day, twice as many calories as the subjects who took a placebo.
Other health benefits linked to the capsaicin in chili peppers includes reducing inflammation and preventing sinus infections.
In addition to capsaicin, chili peppers are a super source of nutrients. They are rich in vitamins A and C and also provide vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin E and the mineral potassium.
What’s more, chili peppers are high in carotenes and flavonoids, which are phytonutrients that function as antioxidants. There are different types of phytonutrients in different color chili peppers so it pays to eat a rainbow variety of these fruits.
If you’re thinking of lighting a fire or turning up the heat in your diet, consider these points: First, don’t sit down to a big bowl of chili peppers if you’ve never eaten these before. Start gradually with mild chilies and work your way up in heat.
The heat in a chili pepper is concentrated in the white membrane inside the fruit. This is where there is the richest concentration of capsaicin. The seeds are often hot, too, because they are usually attached or next to this white membrane.
If you do feel an uncomfortable burn, drink some milk. The milk protein called casein is a great cooling remedy. And when cooking with chili peppers, wear plastic gloves to prevent capsaicin from getting on your hands and transferred to your eyes or other sensitive places.
Chili peppers taste great in a variety of dishes from salsas and soups to stir-fries. They can also be baked, grilled, steamed and stuffed.
Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and a regular contributor to The Triton. Comments on this column are welcome at email@example.com.