Chilli peppers belong to the family of foods bearing the Latin name Capsicum.
There are hundreds of different types of chili peppers that vary in size, shape, colour, flavour and "heat". Habanero, chipotle, jalapeño, Anaheim, and ancho are just some of the popular varieties of chilli peppers available. Another is cayenne, which is well known as a spice in its dried and powdered form.
Chilli peppers contain a substance called capsaicin, which gives peppers their characteristic pungency. The hotter the chilli pepper, the more capsaicin it contains. Capsaicin is a potent inhibitor of substance P, a neuropeptide associated with inflammatory processes, and can help relieve pain associated with arthritis, psoriasis, and diabetic neuropathy.
Capsaicin not only reduces pain, but its peppery heat also stimulates secretions that help clear mucus from stuffed up nose or congested lungs. Furthermore, chilli peppers are an excellent source of vitamin A (in the form of beta-carotene), which is essential for healthy mucous membranes, which line the nasal passages, lungs, intestinal tract and urinary tract, and serve as the body's first line of defense against invading pathogens.
Cultures where hot pepper is used liberally have a much lower rate of heart attack, stroke and pulmonary embolism. This may be because red chilli peppers, such as cayenne, have been shown to reduce blood cholesterol, triglyceride levels, and platelet aggregation, while increasing the body's ability to dissolve fibrin, a substance integral to the formation of blood clots.
Chilli may also boost weight loss by significantly increasing thermogenesis (heat production) and oxygen consumption for more than 20 minutes after they are eaten. All that heat you feel after eating a hot chilli pepper uses up energy and calories!
Capsaicin helps stop the spread of prostate cancer cells through a variety of mechanisms. One word of warning though: excessive intake of hot chillies has been linked to stomach cancer, so don't go overboard.
Ways to Include More Chilli in your Diet
Chilli is what puts fire on your tongue and maybe a tear in your eye when you eat spicy Mexican, sizzling Thai, simmering Szechuan, or smouldering Indian food. Here are other suggestions:
- Add minced chilli peppers to yogurt and use as a dip.
- Purée fresh chilli peppers together with olive oil, garlic, coriander, peppermint, and caraway to make Harissa, a condiment popular in Middle Eastern and North African countries.
- The next time you sauté vegetables, add some chilli peppers to turn up the spice volume.
- Add jalapeños to your favorite tuna salad recipe.
- Cayenne pepper and lemon juice nicely complement cooked bitter greens such as collards, kale and mustard greens.
Written by Victoria Trowse