The term "peppers" encompasses a diverse group of plants, ranging from the popular sweet green or red bell pepper to the fiery hot habañero or the even more lethal Scotch bonnet. When Columbus tasted the small, hot red "berries" he found on his Caribbean voyages, he believed he had reached India—where Europeans obtained black pepper—and called them red pepper. In truth, the native peoples of the Americas had been growing and enjoying sweet and chili peppers for an estimated 7,000 years. Soon after Columbus's ships brought them back to Spain, traders spread them around the world, transforming cuisines—and people's preventive health prospects—from Morocco to Hungary, and India to China.
Peppers—whether sweet bell or hot chili—are members of the plant genus "capsicum" (cap-sih-kum), a term that comes from the Greek word kapto, which means "to bite."
All peppers contain compounds called capsaicinoids. This is especially true of chili peppers, which derive their spicy heat—as well as extraordinary anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anti-cancer, heart-healthy effects—from very high levels of capsaicinoids, the most common form of which is capsaicin.
In addition to capsaicin, chilies are high in antioxidant carotenes and flavonoids, and contain about twice the amount of vitamin C found in citrus fruits. Almost any dish—from homemade soups, stews and chili to stir-fries, salads and salsas—can benefit from small amounts of hot peppers.
Headache help: Substance P is the key transmitter of pain to the brain. In fact, Substance P is the body's main mechanism for producing swelling and pain throughout the trigeminal nerve, which runs through the head, temple and sinus cavity. When the nerve fibers come in contact with Substance P, they react by swelling—an effect that yields headaches and sinus symptoms. Clinical studies have shown that capsaicin, a compound in hot peppers, is extremely effective for relieving and preventing cluster headaches, migraine headaches and sinus headaches.
Arthritis relief: People suffering from arthritis pain typically have elevated levels of Substance P in their blood and in the synovial fluid that bathes their joints. Research has shown that eating foods that contain capsaicin or applying a topical cream that contains capsaicin can suppress Substance P production.
Capsaiscin as spicy sinus soother: Capsaicin also possesses powerful antibacterial properties, and is very effective in fighting and preventing chronic sinus infections (sinusitis). This purely natural chemical will also clear out congested nasal passages like nothing else and is helpful in treating sinus-related allergy symptoms. Small daily doses of capsaicin have even been shown to prevent chronic nasal congestion.
Capsaicin as anti-inflammatory: In recent years, researchers discovered that capsaicin is a potent anti-inflammatory, and have even pinpointed how it works to fight chronic, sub-clinical inflammation. The nuclei of human cells contain chemicals called nuclear transcription factors (NTFs), two of which—activator protein 1 (AP-1) and NF-kappa B—are especially important targets when it comes to prevention of cancer and premature aging of skin. Each of these NTFs can be "activated" by ultraviolet light and free radicals: a result that produces a pro-inflammatory chain reaction that promotes premature aging and a wide variety of degenerative diseases. As it turns out, nature offers several effective NTF-activation blockers, including the capsaicin in chilies and the yellow pigment curcumin in turmeric.
Gastric relief: A recent study on gastric disorders at Duke University showed capsaicin may actually lead to a cure for certain intestinal diseases. The Duke team found that a specific nerve cell receptor appears to be necessary to initiate the development of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a general term given to a variety of chronic disorders in which the intestine becomes inflamed—resulting in recurring abdominal cramps, pain and diarrhea. The cause of IBD is unknown, and it is believed that up to 2 million Americans suffer from this disorder.
Capsaicin vs. cancer: Several recent studies have shown that capsaicin may actually prevent the growth of certain types of cancer. In particular, there have been several clinical studies conducted in Japan and China that showed natural capsaicin directly inhibits the growth of leukemic cells. Although these studies used pure capsaicin directly injected into isolated diseased cells in a laboratory setting, scientists have also concluded that daily consumption of hot peppers (thus capsaicin) may actually prevent certain types of cancer. Throughout South America, intestinal, stomach and colon cancer rates are very low compared to the United States. It is widely regarded by medical experts that this low cancer rate may be tied to the large amounts of capsaicin in their diets, since nearly every main dish in their normal diet contains some form of capsaicin-based food, particularly hot cayenne and jalapeño peppers. Of course we must also take into consideration the fact these cultures also consume fiber-rich beans on a daily basis.
Capsaicin as fat burner: Capsaicin is an active ingredient in many of the most popular "fat burning" supplements on the market. A thermogenic agent, capsaicin helps to increase overall metabolic activity, thus helping the body burn calories and fat. Since the FDA banned the herb ephedra, supplement manufacturers have been searching for new thermogenic ingredients and many have added chilies to the mix. While capsaicin replaces some of ephedra's metabolic effects, it doesn't have that herb's negative, stimulant effects on heart rate. In fact, capsaicin is an actively "heart healthy" supplement.
The Scoville Scale: Hot, Hotter, Hottest Capsaicin is mainly found in hot pepper plants from the capsicum frutescens family. While most varieties are found in South America, where chilis originated, there are also capsicum varieties in Africa, India and even China. Like bell peppers, which also belong to the capsicum falmiy, not all chili peppers are hot. For example, paprika is from the capsicum family, but it's mild at best. On the other hand, paprika's cousin, cayenne, is scorching hot. It all depends on the heat factor within a particular plant.
Hot peppers even have their own measuring scale for heat, known as "Scoville Units." Mostly used in the food industry, the Scoville heat scale is regarded as the most accurate way to measure the true hotness of a pepper plant. Developed in 1912 by botanist Wilbur Scoville, a pepper's Scoville Unit number is based on how much the ground chili needs to be diluted before no heat is detected. Scoville Units measure the perception of heat in multiples of 100, with bell peppers setting the heat-free baseline at zero Scoville Units, pure capsaicin measuring more than 16 million Scoville Units, and most popular types ranking around 30,000 Scoville units. Until recently, habañero peppers held the world record, with some varieties scoring a searing 300,000 Scoville units. However, in 2000, Indian research scientists tested a chili pepper called Naga Jolokia, from the remote northeastern province of Assam. This devilishly hot Indian chili now holds the dubious distinction of being the world's hottest pepper, with a reported score of 855,000 Scoville units.
About 80 percent of a chili's capsaicin is found in the ribs and seeds, which can be removed to reduce its heat. Capsaicin is also distributed unevenly, in much smaller amounts throughout the flesh of a chili pepper.
Aerosolized capsicum, better known as pepper spray (often used to fend off potential attackers) is now being used to fend off sinus infections, allergies and headaches, thanks to a new nasal spray packed with hot pepper extract.
Always exercise a great deal of care when preparing hot peppers to avoid injury. Check at the produce department to select the pepper with the right degree of heat for your palate. Use rubber gloves when chopping and seeding and don't touch your eye during preparation as the oil in the hot peppers will cause a burning sensation—advice spoken with the voice of painful experience!