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Peter Holderness / Medill

Narthasia Reyes, 47, picks hot peppers with
help from her friend Sandra Webb, 57, at a downtown
farmers market on Tuesday.  The women plan to give the
spicy produce to a friend for homemade gardiniere.

Peppers are hot -- as a health and diet aid

by Darren Swan
Oct 02, 2007


Peter Holderness / Medill

The spicier a pepper, the stronger its
health effect.

When it comes to health food, people pick peppers

Hot peppers have been around for more than 6,000 years and now they are taking the medical world by storm.

They have an array of health benefits and it’s time to get them in your diet.

Most authentic Mexican dishes call for some type of hot pepper, whether they be jalapeno, poblano or even chiles—all do the trick. Some sandwiches at your local deli come with pepperoncini or even wax peppers.

However, Dawn Jackson Blatner, registered dietician and author, said people need to get creative in the ways they incorporate these little red, green, yellow, red and orange vegetable fireballs to acquire a taste for some of nature’s piquant foods.

Blatner said hot pepper medicine is exciting because people have these foods already in their cabinets.

“The first take home message for people is that these foods taste good and it can be good for you too,” the Chicago-based nutrition expert said.

“Hot peppers and their active ingredient, capsaicin, acts as an anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory agent, reduces risk for heart disease, and is great for people with arthritis or marathoners regarding inflammation. It’s a pretty special spice.”

Preliminary research proposes that adding a teaspoon of cayenne pepper can cause the body to burn an extra 15 calories after eating the meal.

Blatner, a personal cayenne pepper lover, has come up with several different ways to incorporate the food into her diet.

She will burn some whole grain popcorn and sprinkle the pepper on top of it. Adding it to spaghetti sauce is a good way to subdue the strength of the pepper without losing its nutritional value.

Mix some in with a low fat frozen chocolate yogurt can give a peppery touch to dessert. This is a must-have spice to keep in your rack.

The power of plants and vegetables does not surprise dietitians. Hot peppers are phenomenal for the body and these experts in food and diet rely on these to help improve the human condition.

“We know plants are very powerful to protect humans against disease and we use them as much as possible,” she said.

Not everyone loves spicy food or can tolerate it, for that matter.

Sometimes it takes up to 14 food exposures in taste tests or especially with children to get used to a new food.

Blatner, who works with overweight patients at Northwestern Memorial Hospital Wellness Institute in Chicago and is a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, said eating hot peppers is like any other desired health habit.

“Keep practicing and one day you’ll start craving it,’ she said.

The secret is out: hot peppers are the spice to a healthier life.

Capsaicin, the hot pepper’s natural heat-causing component, has been proven to kill cancer cells, prevent sinus infections, serve as an anti-inflammatory agent, provide gastric relief and produce fat oxidation.

A daily dose of hot peppers lets people breath easier, feel less pain and lower their body fat.

Registered Dietitians and medical experts in Chicago are pushing the multitalented and diverse health benefits of hot peppers.

Carla R. Heiser, registered dietitian and managing partner of Body Logic MD in Chicago, advocates diet and lifestyle strategies in conjunction with a cohesive medicinal plan.

“Medication is used to heal and people can use their food to keep the process going to eventually come off the medication," Heiser said. "Successful diet and lifestyle pathways can get us away from a reliance on medications.”

The burn felt while eating a jalapeno, habenero or cayenne pepper comes directly from the food’s capsaicin. Capsaicin, though odorless and flavorless, is primarily found in the pepper’s seeds and ribs, but is also evenly distributed throughout the vegetable’s flesh, according to the Wellness Encyclopedia of Food and Nutrition.

It retains the unique ability to provoke prostate cancer cell suicide, repress joint pain, block pro-inflammatory chain reactions in the blood and reduce nerve fiber swelling in the brain.

This age-old vegetable has similar effects to those of Aleve, Tylenol, Advil, Tums and chemotherapy all wrapped in one—except this food has zip, taste and no fearful side effects to the consumer beyond a spicy backlash.

The hot pepper’s fuel has the same metabolic effects as Ephedra without containing Ephredra’s negative cardiovascular side effects. It has been added to vitamin and weight loss supplements to increase effectiveness and safety.

A common myth exists that hot peppers cause ulcers and small intestine irritation.

However, research asserts that though spicy food may add to ulcer pain and irritation, it does not function as a cause: Ulcer development has never been factually linked to spicy foods or hot peppers.

Recent experiments at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles provided experimental evidence supporting capsaicin’s ability to halt prostate cell replication and encourage programmed cell death. Heiser said the uncovered benefits of capsaicin are on the right evolutionary road and we as eaters should get on the bandwagon.

“The first path was treating cancer cells with capsaicin and then to use the data to write the study that would then be applied to animals,” she said.

“This is all a scientific process," she said. "We’ll move from a Petrie to replication on an animal model and with good results they are likely to move to human beings. Animals might even be skipped because [hot peppers] are already in our food supply.”

Hot pepper research has become incredibly popular in 2007 with more than 200 placebo-controlled studies conducted in that time.