As children, we grew up with a popular tongue-twister:
Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
Aside from the fact the peppers would need to be picked first and then pickled, Mr. Piper might be onto something. More and more, hot peppers are emerging as a popular element in American cooking, and the spicy fruit provides a plethora of purported pleasant purposes.
Hot peppers generally add exciting zest to cooked foods, salads and sauces because they contain varying amounts of capsaicin (methyl vanillyl nonenamide). A little capsaicin goes a long way toward making our taste buds yell “FIRE!”
Peppers are members of either the piper or capsicum genus. More than 1,000 species of peppers comprise the piper genus, including black pepper, java and long peppers. These contain piperine, which can still seem hot. Because black pepper can be stored for long periods of time without losing its flavor, it is considered a “master spice.” Over the centuries, it has been used as currency to pay rent and taxes, in dowries, and was weighed like gold. When Rome was sacked by the Visagoths in 410 A.D., 3,000 pounds of black pepper was demanded as ransom. Today, black pepper is a common table spice, and Visagoths are quite hard to find.
Capsicum peppers derive their name from the capsaicin content, and include bell peppers, chile peppers, habanero and about two dozen others. Native Americans cultivated peppers, and have used them for medicinal purposes for more than 5,000 years, as indicated by carvings in Pueblo and Oaxaca pottery.
Cayenne pepper, familiar as a crushed hot, red powder, obtained its name from Christopher Columbus, who found it in the French Guiana port of the same name. He took ample quantities back to Spain, where it became widely popular and soon was shipped all over the world. Cayenne pepper, associated with Louisiana’s Cajun and creole cooking, as well as good ol’ five-alarm Texas Chili, is not even one of the hottest peppers. On the Scoville Scale, which measures the piquancy of peppers, bell peppers are the base at zero, meaning that no capsaicin can be detected. Cayenne rates about 30,000 on that scale, behind hotter capsicum species such as Scotch Bonnett at 350,000 and the world’s hottest variety, the Naga Jolokia at 855,000. The Scoville scale peaks at 16,000,000, and if a pepper that hot existed, it quite possibly could burn a hole through the sun. The powdered forms of cayenne yield only a fraction of the capsaicin found in fresh peppers or liquid extracts.
When eating dishes with spicy, hot peppers, water does little to dissipate the heat. Bread works better.
Perhaps Peter Piper was picking his peppers for pharmacological purposes. Fresh chilies and other hot peppers are packed with twice the amount of vitamin C found in many citrus fruits, although cooking diminishes that potency. They are a prime source of antioxidant carotenes and flavonoids, which help preserve cellular structure. As a rule, the more orange or red or yellow the pepper, the more beta-carotenes and flavonoids they contain. Researchers are finding no shortage of medical benefits for “capsaicin therapy,” or even regular ingestion of the substance. Capsaicin has been proven to relieve headaches. In 1931, scientists isolated a neurotransmitter they called Substance P, which is the body’s main trigger for producing swelling and pain. Capsaicin effectively negates the impact of Substance P, diminishing and preventing cluster headaches, migraines and sinus headaches.
Capsaicin is also an anti-bacterial agent, helping the body to ward off sinus congestion. Hot pepper was once used as a preservative, and cowboys driving cattle . Eating extremely hot peppers can cause sweating, and it stimulates saliva, mucus and uric acid production, which flushes harmful bacteria from the body.
Hot peppers may also hold the key to cancer prevention. Capsaicin caused nearly 80 percent of prostate cancer cells to die in mice, according to a study published in Cancer Research, authored by H. Phillip Koeffler, M.D., director of hematology and oncology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The capsaicin-arrested tumors were about one-fifth the size of those in untreated mice, giving hope that nature’s little infernos might be part of an outright cure.
“Capsaicin inhibits the growth of human prostate cancer cells in petri dishes and mice,” Dr. Koeffler says. Encouraging results have also been witnessed with pancreatic cancer, stomach cancer, colon cancer and other types. In Latin American countries, where people consume more capsicum peppers per capita than other regions of the world, incidences of colon cancer are dramatically less than in the United States or other parts of the world. Researchers concede that the lower instances of certain cancers could also be attributed to greater consumption of beans.
Hot peppers aid the digestive tract and stimulate higher metabolism. Medical researchers at Duke University Medical Center theorize that raw peppers loaded with capsaicin may deter the formation of certain nerve receptors that lead to inflammatory bowel disease, while others claim they stimulate the production of digestive juices and enzymes that cleanse the stomach and duodenum of harmful bacteria, including the H. pylori bacteria. H. pylori causes peptic ulcers in 20 percent of Americans under age 40 and more than half of those older than 60, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Studies of a small test group by Baylor University researchers refute the effectiveness of capsaicin to treat H. pylori bacteria, so the jury is still out. It is proven that metabolism rates skyrocket in the first 20 minutes after eating peppers, which reduces many symptoms of hypothyroidism.
Eating spicy peppers will also turbo charge your circulatory system. Dr. Richard Schulze, a medical herbologist and author of “Curing with Cayenne,” says “There’s no other herb that increases your blood flow faster than cayenne. There are none that work faster; none that work better. There is no other herb stronger or more effective than cayenne to make immediate physiological and metabolic changes in the body.”
That increased blood flow quickens healing by whisking nutrients, minerals, herbs and vitamins quickly to areas that need it most, Dr. Schulze says. He likens cayenne’s active ingredient to TNT, which blasts through blockages caused by cholesterol, fats and blood clots. Capsaicin inhibits the adhesion of clotting cells without interfering with normal blood coagulation, reports Marilyn Sterling, R.D. in Functional Ingredients. It dilates blood vessels, which helps carry oxygen to all parts of the body. It may also reduce the risk of strokes.
Hot peppers can cure or reduce pain from Reynauds Phenomenon, osteoarthritis, varicose veins, shingles, sinusitis, Type 2 diabetes and psoriasis.
Capsaicin lozenges are being studied as a deterrent to pneumonia in elderly patients, and at the S.M.S. Medical College in Jaipur, India, researchers are finding it effective in the prevention of asthma.
Despite all these medical benefits, some precautions are necessary when handling cayenne, jalapeno, ancho, habanero and other chilies. The capsaicin is concentrated in the veins and seeds of those peppers, but permeates the skins as well. Natural oils on the outer surface of the peppers are easily transferred to the skin, and can be extremely – read that, EXTREMELY! – painful if it comes in contact with eyes, nostrils or other mucus membranes. Don’t insert or touch contact lenses. Always avoid touching babies or children if you are cutting or chopping peppers, as their skin is more sensitive than an adult’s. At the market, when you pick your peppers, take advantage of the plastic produce bags and do not handle hot peppers with your bare hands.
Now, if you are like Peter Piper and purchase peppers by the peck-load, you can preserve them easily. Roast your peppers in a single layer on a baking sheet at 225 degrees for an hour, or until they are dry and crispy. You may also use a food dehydrator. Store in a coffee can or in plastic storage bags, refrigerated or in a cool, dry place.
1. BIG LIST OF HOT PEPPERS – Cayenne Diane
2. The Ultimate Guide to Peppers – Chowhound