They are members of the nightshade family, related to bell peppers and tomatoes, and most belong to a species known scientifically as Capsicum annuum.
There are many varieties of chili peppers, such as cayenne and jalapenos.
Chili peppers are primarily used as spices, or minor ingredients in various dishes, spice blends and sauces.
They are usually eaten cooked, or dried and powdered, in which form they are known as paprika.
Capsaicin is the main bioactive plant compound in chili peppers, responsible for their unique pungent (hot) taste and many of their health benefits.
They come in a variety of colors, the most common of which are green (immature) and red.
Fresh chili peppers are mainly composed of water (88%) and carbohydrates (9%).
Vitamins and Minerals
Chili peppers are rich in various vitamins and minerals.
However, since they are only eaten in small amounts, their contribution to the daily intake is very small.
- Vitamin C: Chili peppers are very high in vitamin C. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, important for wound healing and immune function.
- Vitamin B6: A family of B-vitamins, some of which have important functions in energy metabolism.
- Vitamin K1: Also known as phylloquinone, vitamin K1 is essential for blood clotting and healthy bones and kidneys.
- Potassium: An essential dietary mineral that serves a variety of functions in the body. Adequate intake of potassium may reduce the risk of heart disease.
- Copper: Often lacking in the Western diet, copper is an essential antioxidant trace element, important for strong bones and healthy neurons.
- Vitamin A: Red chili peppers are high in beta-carotene, which is converted into vitamin A in the body.
Other Plant Compounds
Chili peppers are a rich source of spicy-hot capsaicin.
They are also very high in antioxidant carotenoids, which are linked with numerous health benefits.
Here are the main bioactive plant compounds in chili peppers:
- Capsanthin: The main carotenoid in red chili peppers, responsible for their red color, and often accounting for up to 50% of the total carotenoid content. Its powerful antioxidant properties may act against cancer.
- Violaxanthin: The major carotenoid antioxidant in yellow chili peppers, accounting for 37-68% of the total carotenoid content.
- Lutein: Most abundant in green (immature) chili peppers, the levels of lutein decrease with maturation. High consumption of lutein has been linked with improved eye health.
- Capsaicin: One of the most studied plant compounds in chili peppers. It is responsible for their pungent (hot) flavor and many of their health effects.
- Sinapic acid: An antioxidant, also known as sinapinic acid. It has a variety of potential health benefits.
- Ferulic acid: Similarly to sinapic acid, ferulic acid is an antioxidant that may help protect against various chronic diseases.
Bottom Line: Chili peppers are rich in antioxidant plant compounds that have been linked with various health benefits. Most notable is capsaicin, which is responsible for the pungent (hot) taste of chili peppers.
Health Benefits of Chili Peppers
Despite their burning taste, chili peppers have long been considered a healthy spice.
Capsaicin, the main bioactive plant compound in chili peppers, has some unique properties.
It binds with pain receptors, which are nerve endings that sense pain. This induces a burning sensation, but does not actually cause any real burning injuries.
Even so, high consumption of chili peppers (or capsaicin) may damage the pain receptors over time, causing desensitization to the burning flavor of chili.
It also makes these pain receptors insensitive to other forms of pain, such as heartburn caused by acid reflux.
One study found that when red chili peppers (2.5 grams/day) were given to patients with heartburn (dyspepsia) it worsened pain at the beginning of the 5-week treatment, but improved it over time.
This is supported by another small study showing that 3 grams of chili each day for 6 weeks improved heartburn in patients with acid reflux.
The desensitization effect does not seem to be permanent, and one study found that it was reversed 1-3 days after capsaicin consumption stopped.
Obesity is a serious health condition that increases the risk of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes.
There is some evidence that capsaicin, a plant compound in chili peppers, can promote weight loss by reducing appetite and increasing fat burning.
In fact, studies have shown that 10 grams of red chili pepper can significantly increase fat burning in both men and women.
Supporting this, other more recent studies have shown that capsaicin may significantly increase fat burning.
Capsaicin may also reduce calorie intake. A study in 24 regular consumers of chili found that capsaicin before a meal led to reduced calorie intake.
Another study found a significant reduction in appetite and energy intake only in those who did not regularly consume chili.
Not all studies have found chili peppers to be effective. Other studies found no significant effects on calorie intake or fat burning.
Despite the mixed evidence, it appears that regular consumption of red chilis, or capsaicin supplements, may be helpful for weight loss when combined with other healthy lifestyle strategies.
However, they are probably not very effective on their own; tolerance to the effects of capsaicin may develop over time, which limits its usability.
Bottom Line: Chili peppers have been associated with several health benefits. They may promote weight loss when combined with other healthy lifestyle strategies, and may help relieve pain caused by acid reflux.
Adverse Effects and Individual Concerns
Like most foods, chili peppers can have adverse effects in some individuals, and many people do not like its burning hot flavor.
Chili peppers are well known for their hot, burning flavor.
The substance responsible is capsaicin, which binds with pain receptors and causes an intense burning sensation.
For this reason, an extract of chili peppers called “oleoresin capsicum” is the main ingredient of pepper sprays.
In high amounts, it causes severe pain, inflammation, swelling, and redness.
Over time, regular exposure to capsaicin may cause certain pain neurons to become insensitive to further pain.
Stomach Pain and Diarrhea
Eating chili can cause intestinal distress in some people.
The symptoms may include abdominal pain, burning sensation in the gut, cramps, and painful diarrhea.
This is more common in people with irritable bowel syndrome. Chili can temporarily worsen symptoms in those who are not used to eating it regularly.
For this reason, people with irritable bowel syndrome may want to limit their consumption of chili and other spicy foods.
Cancer is a serious disease characterized by abnormal growth of cells.
There is mixed evidence on the effect of chili on cancer.
Test-tube experiments and animal studies indicate that capsaicin, a plant compound in chili peppers, may either increase or decrease the risk of cancer.
Observational studies in humans have linked chili pepper consumption with increased risk of cancer, especially in the gallbladder and stomach.
Additionally, eating red chili powder was found to be a risk factor for mouth and throat cancer in India.
Keep in mind that observational studies cannot prove that chili peppers caused cancer, only that people who ate chili peppers were more likely to get it.
Further studies are needed to determine whether heavy chili consumption or capsaicin supplementation is safe in the long-term.
Bottom Line: Chili peppers are not good for everyone. They cause a burning sensation, and may cause stomach pain and diarrhea in some individuals. Some studies have associated chili consumption with cancer.
Chili peppers are a popular spice in many parts of the world, well known for their hot, pungent flavor.
They are rich in vitamins, minerals, and various unique plant compounds.
This includes capsaicin, the substance that causes the burning sensation in the mouth. Capsaicin is linked with several health benefits, as well as adverse effects.
On one hand, it may help promote weight loss and relieve pain, if consumed regularly.
On the other hand, it causes a burning sensation, which is unpleasant for many people, especially those who are not used to eating chili peppers.
Chili peppers may also cause digestive distress, and some studies have associated chili consumption with cancer, although the evidence for this is very limited.
At the end of the day, using chili peppers as a spice may be healthy for many people, while those who experience digestive distress should avoid them.
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Source: Nutrition and You
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