The health benefi ts of pepper

Chizoba Nwobu

Pepper (Capsicum sp.) is a members of the Solanacea family, which also includes tomato, tobacco, eggplant and Irish potato. It is a pungent aromatic fruit that is wellknown for its medicinal and high nutritional value. Peppers are usually feared by many, loved by some, and misunderstood by more because of the active ingredient known as capsaicin in which some species contain. From the various colors to the various tastes, peppers are important spice which forms an essential part of our everyday cooking.

Pepper is a herbaceous perennial spice that thrives well in tropical climates. They originate from the Mexico and Central America regions and have been grown in virtually every part of the world. In the middle ages, pepper was an accepted currency as it was ideal for trade because it does not deteriorate over time provided it was kept dry and out of sunlight, so, it was possible to pay rent, taxes and dowries with this spice. Pepper has been developed into numerous cultivated varieties that are either “sweet” or “hot”. “Sweet pepper” are plump, bell-shaped vegetables featuring either three or four lobes. “Sweet peppers” such as green and purple peppers have a slightly bitter flavor, while the red, orange and yellows are sweeter and almost fruity. Sweet peppers are not ‘hot’ because they contain little or no capsaicin. Whilst “hot peppers” are long, thin, with colours such as green, red, yellow and orange. “Hot peppers” like cayenne has active ingredient known as capsaicin which acts on pain receptors and an intense skin and eye irritant, an ingredient used in pepper sprays sold for self-defense. Capsaicin in hot peppers has been shown to decrease blood cholesterol and triglycerides, controls diabetes, boost immunity, and reduce the risk of stomach ulcers, topical pain relief for muscle soreness, skin irritations, and rheumatism, and as an anti-inflammatory. Recent medical research has also documented antimicrobial and antifungal activity of capsaicin obtained from several Capsicum species, and on-going studies are exploring its use in cancer treatment.

Peppers are low in calories; some like the sweet red peppers have mild thermogenic action, increasing our metabolism without increasing heart rate and blood pressure. This specie of peppers are a good source of the carotenoid called lycopene, which is earning a reputation for helping to prevent prostate cancer as well as cancer of the bladder, cervix, and pancreas. Beta-cryptoxanthin, another carotenoid in red peppers, prevents lung cancer related to smoking and secondhand smoke. Researchers at the Laboratory of Nutritional Biochemistry in Brazil investigated the potential anti-cancer activity of Lycopene, the major carotenoid component of tomatoes, in several types of cancer cells in the lab. The findings shows that the capacity of lycopene to inhibit cell proliferation, arrest cell cycle in different phases and increase apoptosis, mainly in breast, colon and prostate lines. Peppers are a great source of antioxidants. Antioxidants are free radical scavengers such as vitamin A, which support healthy eyesight especially night vision and helps improve sperm quality. It contains vitamin C which prevents cell damage and cancers; supports the immune function and prevents diseases related to aging. Vitamin C is needed for proper absorption of iron, and helps reduce inflammation like those found in arthritis and asthma. Peppers contain vitamin K, which promotes proper blood clotting, strengthens bones, and helps protect cells from oxidative damage. It is a good source of Vitamin E, which is known to play a key role in keeping the skin and hair youthful. Peppers contain vitamin B6, which is essential for the health of the nervous system and helps reduce bloating and prevent hypertension. Certain enzymes in peppers, such as lutein, protect the eyes from cataracts and macular degeneration later in life.

Besides being rich in photochemicals, peppers provide a decent amount fibre.

Both “hot” and “sweet” peppers contain substances that have been shown to increase the body’s heat production and oxygen consumption for about 20 minutes after eating. This means that the body is burning extra calories, which helps in weight loss.

Peppers loss flavour and aroma through evaporation and when exposed to light so airtight storage helps preserve its spiciness longer. Intense heat cooking can also damage some of the delicate phytonutrients in all types of peppers. Fresh peppers may be stored for up to 3 weeks in cool, moist conditions. Sweet and hot peppers can be frozen or dried for later use.

Some varieties have also been developed to be used as ornamentals in making indoor pots.

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