Peppery Thoughts on Capsicum

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CAPSICUMBy: Susan Heckler

Capsicum is a biological classification of some flowering plants in the nightshade family. Potatoes, tobacco, tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, eggplant, tomatillos, tamarios, pepinos, pimentos, paprika, and cayenne peppers are classified as nightshade foods. “Nightshade” is actually the common name used to describe over 2,800 species of plants. All of the plants, however, belong to a scientific order called Polemoniales, and to a scientific family called Solanaceae. Its species are native to the Americas, where they have been cultivated for thousands of years.

According to The World’s Healthiest Foods (, many nightshade plants have been placed on the Most Controversial Foods list, comprised of 125 foods. They state “All of these foods are whole foods that are part of longstanding culinary traditions and are widely available in food markets throughout the U.S. Equally important, our WHFoods are nutrient-rich and give you an outstanding number of nutrients while costing you relatively few calories from your daily calorie budget. Despite these highly beneficial qualities, however, not all of our WHFoods are meant for everyone.”

Most of the health research on nightshades has focused on a collection of elements found in all nightshades called alkaloids. Alkaloids all have at least one ring-like structure that contains the element nitrogen. Alkaloids are largely designed to help safeguard the plants from insects that would otherwise eat them. Alkaloids are produced by plants as a regular part of their biochemical activity.

The fruit of Capsicum plants have a variety of names depending on place and type. The spicy varieties are commonly called chili peppers, or simply “chilies”. The large mild form is called bell pepper in North America. These peppers can be eaten raw, cooked, or dried and used as spice.

Chili peppers contain a substance called capsaicin. This gives peppers their characteristic pungency or spiciness. The hotter the chili pepper, the more capsaicin it contains. The hottest varieties include habanero and Scotch bonnet peppers. Jalapenos are next in their heat and capsaicin content, followed by the milder varieties, including Spanish pimentos, and Anaheim and Hungarian cherry peppers.

Capsaicin is being studied as an effective treatment for sensory nerve fiber disorders, including pain associated with arthritis, psoriasis, and diabetic neuropathy. Used topically, Capsaicin is used for pain management. Capsaicin works by depleting or interfering with substance P, a chemical involved in transmitting pain impulses to the brain. While it will not cure these conditions, it may help diminish the symptoms. Capsaicin is actually an irritant to humans, producing a burning sensation in any tissue it touches so be sure to wash hands thoroughly after applying capsaicin. Getting it in your eye is something you will not forget.

Ingesting Capsaicin has other potential benefits. Red chili 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. Cultures where hot pepper is used liberally have a much lower rate of heart attack, stroke and pulmonary embolism. Additionally, spicing your meals with chili peppers may also protect the fats in your blood from damage by free radicals – a first step in the development of atherosclerosis. After eating the chili-containing diet, the rate of oxidation (free radical damage to cholesterol and triglycerides) was significantly lower in both men and women than that seen after eating the bland diet.

Capsaicin has been known to reduce headaches. It not only reduces pain, but its peppery heat also stimulates secretions that help clear mucus from your stuffed up nose or congested lungs. Capsaicin also possesses powerful antibacterial properties, and is very effective in fighting and preventing chronic sinus infections (sinusitis).

Chili peppers’ bright red color signals its high content of beta-carotene or pro-vitamin A. Just two teaspoons of red chili peppers provide about 6% of the daily value for vitamin C coupled with more than 10% of the daily value for vitamin A.

In an article on WedMD, “capsaicin may fire a lethal blow at cancer cells by affecting the activity of a protein complex called NF-kappa Beta. This makes it more difficult for cancer to dodge programmed cell death (apoptosis). In the prostate study, capsaicin caused the death of about 80% of prostate cancer cells in mice, making tumors shrink by about one-fifth the size of untreated tumors.”

Ingesting capsaicin is also linked to weight loss.

Not big on spicy foods? Do you need more capsaicin than you can get through food? You can also buy capsaicin as a supplement. The Scoville Chart below shows that you can get a smaller amount of capsicum in sweeter peppers too.

There is truth to the saying “too much of a good thing.” Taking too much capsaicin may be bad for your health. If you have questions or concerns regarding how much capsaicin you should use, consult your primary medical provider.