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Spice of Life

Sizzling Hot Healthy Peppers

Habanero, banana wax, jalapeno and other members of the chile pepper family have added a kick of flavor to otherwise bland food for hundreds of years. These spicy dynamos not only make our tongues sizzle and our faces sweat, they also deliver an array of health benefits.

The hot, hotter and scorching sensation of capsaicin, found primarily in the seeds and ribs of cayenne peppers, has its own heat scale. While the amount of this chemical component varies among pepper varieties, the rule is, the more capsaicin, the more fire in the belly and mouth. Bell peppers are at the bottom of the Scoville Heat Scale, with zero units, while fiery habaneros score around 300,000 units, and pure capsaicin, at the top of the list, measures a scorching 16 million units.

In recent years, researchers who have studied capsaicin have surfaced some promising results. Evidently, eating these spicy treats can help prevent and treat certain types of cancer, decrease and alleviate pain and help control weight.

Fight Cancer
In India, Mexico and other countries where hot peppers are commonly used in traditional cuisine, cancer rates are relatively low, according to the Globocan 2002 database. This correlates with the results of a study conducted on mice genetically modified with human prostate cancer cells. Research by the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, in collaboration with University of California, Los Angeles, demonstrated that the pepper extract not only killed approximately 80 percent of the cancer cells, but also dramatically curbed the growth of remaining tumors, which were only one-fifth the size of those in untreated mice.

Capsaicin triggered a similar effect in human lung and pancreatic cancer cells in a study conducted at the University of Nottingham in the UK.

One fresh, medium-sized
green chile pod has as much
vitamin C as six oranges.

Manage Pain
Over-the-counter topical capsaicin ointments, such as Zostrix and Capzasin-P, currently provide thousands of individuals with relief from the pain associated with osteoarthritis, sports injuries and psoriasis. These peppery creams work by depleting the amount of a neurotransmitter called substance P, which is believed to send pain messages to the brain. Many individuals experience a localized burning sensation when capsaicin cream is applied to the skin, but this discomfort eventually subsides with repeated use, and pain relief usually follows.

Offset Obesity
Capsaicin is found in various weight loss supplements because it increases metabolic activity, which helps to burn calories and fat. In 1999, the British Journal of Nutrition published a study revealing that women participants who added two teaspoons of dried red pepper to their food consumed fewer calories and less fat at their next meal, so capsaicin may reduce appetite.
 

One teaspoon of dried
red chile powder delivers
the daily requirement
of vitamin A.

Spice Up a Diet
To make the most of the diverse health benefits associated with eating hot peppers, we must add them to our everyday diet. Any Mexican or Thai restaurant can easily satiate a hankering for heat. At home, adding hot peppers to meals is easy and adds intriguing color and flavor to foods.

Note that regular consumption of hot peppers increases one’s tolerance to capsaicin, and thus access to its benefits. So experts recommend that we begin at the base of the Scoville Heat Scale, with milder peppers, and gradually work our way up to the tongue scorchers.

Start, for example, with pepperoncinis, which add zing to salads and soups and then, step up to hotter varieties, like poblanos and jalapenos, perfect in pasta dishes, rices and omelets. Maybe top a pizza with sliced wax peppers. Finally, add a dash of cayenne pepper to spice salsas, sauces and meat marinades.

Researchers and dieticians around the world are excited about the proven and potential health benefits of hot peppers. People everywhere are proving why, indeed, some like it hot.


Amber Lanier Nagle is a freelance writer in Adairsville, GA. Connect at AmberNagle.com.

Source: New Mexico State University; for more, visit www.ChilePepperInstitute.org and search Chile Information.

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