Chili peppers don't just spice up your dishes. They can also pep up your overall health picture. On the flip side, they can also inflict scorching anguish, and there are concerns about the health downsides of eating chili peppers.
Liz Applegate, director of sports nutrition at UC Davis, and Earl Carstens, professor of neurobiology, physiology and behavior at UC Davis, weighed in on the physiological and health effects of a diet that includes hot chili peppers.
First, some questions for Applegate.
What are the overall health benefits of eating chili peppers?
As a vegetable, peppers are an excellent source of vitamin C. In fact, a quarter-cup of chilies provides 100 percent of the recommended daily intake of C, but some people can't eat that because it's too hot. There's some vitamin A, in the form of the pigment carotene. Peppers are rich in antioxidants, which have been shown to control cell damage and age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer's.
Can peppers contribute to cardiovascular health?
There's no study showing that, but they do contain nutrients like vitamin C, potassium and fiber, which all can improve cardiovascular health.
What about cancer prevention?
Research suggests that vegetables with bright colors may protect against certain types of cancer, including prostate cancer.
Can eating peppers aid in weight loss?
There have been some studies that show the compound in peppers that makes them hot, capsaicin, can boost metabolism, and burn extra calories, up to 10 to 50 calories a day. Here's the catch: You need a decent amount of the hot stuff. You can take tablets with the compound, but the health benefits are reduced. The big picture on weight- control is to exercise and incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet.
There is also a study out of the University of Copenhagen that indicates having chili peppers in your meal may dull your appetite. It showed that people who ate chili peppers ate less at their next meal. Since we're always looking for ways to control our appetites, peppers can be useful in that way.
Finally, there is research showing peppers may actually lower blood sugar level, which is good for people who are overweight, who may be pre-diabetic or diabetic. But diabetics should never replace their prescribed medication for peppers or any other diet changes.
Any health drawbacks?
The biggest health disadvantage is that people tend to want to stuff them with cheeses that are high in saturated fats. Some studies show that pickled peppers, or any pickled vegetable for that matter, could be linked to throat and stomach cancer. Hot peppers can also cause heartburn and painful bowel movements.
In which form are peppers most beneficial to health?
When you eat peppers raw, the compound capsaicin is more active. Fresh peppers have a higher content of vitamin C and potassium. Canned peppers usually have added salt, and cooked peppers will have less of the active compound.
Can you boost the benefits by pairing peppers with other foods, or conversely, are there some foods that undercut the benefits?
When eaten with beans, peppers can help absorb the iron from beans. That's why they are healthy in a bowl of chili. I can't think of any cases where other foods would reduce the health benefits from peppers, but if you make your salsa too hot, you are missing out on some great nutrients because you can't eat it.
Are there any health myths associated with chili peppers?
They don't cause stomach ulcers. And they have not been proven to be good for bones. Another belief is that they relieve nasal congestion, and I guess they do that temporarily, but I don't think people should be popping jalapeños for congestion.
And now some questions for Carstens.
Can chili peppers offer pain relief?
Yes, capsaicin, the pungent chemical in red chili peppers, can provide pain relief for a variety of ailments, including some neuropathies and psoriasis. The compound is available in over-the-counter creams to treat muscle ache and other types of pain.
It acts by reducing the action of "nociceptors," or pain receptors, in the skin. When first applied, the capsaicin initially excites nociceptors to cause a burning sensation.
However, after a while the burning goes away and the capsaicin desensitizes the same nociceptors to reduce pain. It may also desensitize nerve fibers in the skin that signal itch, hence reducing the itch of psoriasis.
Can capsaicin help with reducing inflammation?
Yes, again, by desensitizing the nociceptors.
Why do peppers burn our skin and eyes, and irritate our digestive tract?
This is due to the capsaicin activating pain receptors on the surface of the eye or skin. The capsaicin does not actually cause any tissue damage, but it can evoke a burning sensation. In the same way, capsaicin creates a burning sensation in our stomachs by activating nociceptors that innervate the gut.