Whether fresh, dried, ground, or roasted, chili peppers add unrivaled pop to meals while delivering countless medicinal benefits to the body. Capsaicin, the compound responsible for chilies’ pungency and spice, has been credited with a host of health advantages, from killing cancerous cells to lowering blood pressure, preventing obesity, and reducing the risk of diabetes.
When consumed, capsaicin binds to pain receptors in the mouth, causing the brain to send endorphins to alleviate the burning. Endorphins trigger the blood vessels to dilate, which is why your face can flush after eating hot peppers—and why peppers may also help reduce blood pressure, says new research from Japan. Because endorphins have a feel-good effect, people can become addicted to foods that contain capsaicin.
Capsaicin is also a powerful anti-inflammatory agent and anticoagulant, so it may help decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke. Cultures with diets rich in capsaicin, like those of Thailand and India, have a lower incidence of heart attack, stroke, and pulmonary embolisms.
In addition to being heart-healthy, capsaicin may also help thwart cancer. Research conducted earlier this year found that capsaicin extract killed the mitochondria in cancerous cells without hurting healthy cells. Studies also show that capsaicin inhibits the proliferation of cancerous cells in the lungs, pancreas, and prostate.
While capsaicin is believed to worsen certain gastrointestinal ailments, such as heartburn, the ancient Mayans incorporated chilies into medicinal remedies for stomach problems. Scientists believe capsaicin extract may impede disease-causing microbes in the gut. A word of warning, though: Although chilies don’t necessarily cause digestive disorders, the jury’s out on whether hot peppers harm those with ulcers, heartburn, and other preexisting stomach problems.
Much of the latest research has focused on capsaicin’s ability to stimulate metabolism, prevent weight gain, and help reduce the risk of diabetes. Eating chilies boosts the body’s heat production, increasing metabolism—you may burn up to an additional 75 calories per meal when consuming foods that contain hot chilies, says Yvonne Nienstadt, nutrition director at the Rancho La Puerta Fitness Report and Spa in Tecate, Mexico. A 2007 study conducted in Taiwan found that capsaicin also inhibits the growth of fat cells in mice; scientists are hopeful that more research will confirm the compound as a fat-fighting additive. Capsaicin may also prove beneficial to those with diabetes, suggests a 2009 study published in Obesity.
Whether you like your food mild or off-the-charts spicy, here are five of our favorite hot peppers, arranged in order of pungency. Just remember: The spicier the pepper, the more capsaicin it contains, so for the biggest health kick, reach for the hottest chili you can handle.
Known as an ancho chili when dried, the poblano is relatively mild but has enough spice to add kick to any dish. This pepper is loaded with vitamin A, riboflavin, vitamin B6, iron, and potassium. One single chili contains 15 percent of your daily value of dietary fiber.
Try it: The large size and thick skin of poblanos make them ideal for stuffing. Fill the peppers with cooked quinoa, onions, black beans, and a pinch of cumin, then bake in a 400-degree oven for 35 minutes.
Like all peppers, jalapeños can be made less spicy depending on how hot you like your food. A chili’s heat originates in its white ribs, where most of the capsaicin is stored, so to lessen the heat, pare away as many ribs as possible before adding the pepper to food. Although you’ll consume less capsaicin, if your food tastes hot, you’re still ingesting the spice.
Try it: Blend the smokiness of jalapeño with the mellow taste of corn by adding a few chopped peppers to polenta. Or make jalapeño pesto by mixing minced peppers with cilantro, garlic, and pine nuts; serve over pasta or seafood.
These long, thin peppers have plenty of phytosterols and antioxidants, making them highly anti-inflammatory. The serrano also packs a big punch of antioxidant vitamin C despite its relatively small size.
Try it: Crisp texture and thin skin make serranos a perfect addition to any salsa. For a fruity spin on the old standby, mix 1 chopped pepper with 1 ½ cups diced mango, ½ cup diced red onion, 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro, 2 juiced limes, 1 tablespoon capers, 1 teaspoon sea salt, 1 cup diced avocado, and ½ cup diced tomato. Combine and chill until ready to serve.
Cayenne is a common additive to self-defensive pepper spray, so consider wearing gloves when handling these fireballs (or any hot chili, for that matter). Also known as red pepper, cayenne is a good congestion fighter, says Britta Zimmer, ND, a naturopathic physician in Hilo, Hawaii. To relieve nasal stuffiness, stir a pinch of cayenne in herbal tea.
Try it: Take a note from the Aztecs, and add a little cayenne powder to hot chocolate—or any other chocolate dish—
to bring out the best of both flavors.
This bell-shaped pepper, 20 times spicier than a jalapeño, is not for the faint of heart. That said, habaneros can be especially beneficial to those with heart and other circulatory conditions due to their increased capsaicin, says Zimmer.
Try it: Those who can tolerate habanero rave about its sweet apple- or apricot-flavored undertones. Fold a few pieces of deseeded, chopped habeneros into a bowl of ice cream—the fat in the cream will help tame the spiciness.
Can’t Stand the Heat?
Just because you can’t take the heat doesn’t mean you have to get out of the kitchen. Also known as sweet peppers, bell peppers are technically still chilies, but don’t contain capsaicin and have a 0 rating on the Scoville Units scale that measures chilies’ heat. But bell peppers still offer plenty of dietary fiber, minerals, and vitamins, including vitamins B6 and K, making them a healthy addition to salads, stir-frys, and salsas.
“People often think of oranges as being good for vitamin C,” explains Britta Zimmer, ND, a naturopathic physician based in Hilo, Hawaii. “But bell peppers have three times the vitamin C of oranges.” While all bell peppers are stocked with nutrients, red peppers have more beta-carotene, vitamin C, and lycopene, which has been linked to a reduced prostate cancer risk. Lycopene is more active when cooked, so roast red peppers before adding them to your favorite Mexican-inspired dish, like fajitas or tacos.
Cool It Off!
If you’ve bitten off more pepper than you can handle, try eating a spoon of full-fat yogurt. The fat mixed with the milk protein casein helps dissolve the pain-inducing capsaicin. Yvonne Nienstadt, nutrition director at Mexico’s Rancho La Puerta Fitness Report and Spa, recommends wearing gloves or rubbing your hands with oil before cutting or cooking with peppers, but milk works also if you inadvertently get some chili on your skin.
Did you know…
Chili peppers belong to the capsicum genus, part of the nightshade family that includes tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant?
By Lindsey Galloway