On a recent city outing, with my GPS pointed in the direction of culinary discoveries, I stumbled upon a boutique where peppers of all nature were displayed alongside exotic spices from around the globe. These were no ordinary peppers, arranged as they were by degrees of heat from hot to hotter to hottest. I was intrigued by names like Bird’s Tongue Chile, Espelette, Naga Viper and Satan’s Kiss. I began to imagine writing about these dangerously hot fruits as I laid out my purchases.
As so often happens, synchronicity, the intersecting of time and circumstance, then produced numerous references to peppers. While I was studying plant-based cancer treatments, peppers were mentioned. While I worked on methods to increase metabolism, peppers again made an appearance. Rather counterintuitively, peppers also arose as an aid for treating ulcers and other gut issues. Not the first thing you would think of for soothing an injured digestive tract.
How is a pepper's heat measured?
When comparing the heat of capsicums, or peppers, the first thing to know is how that heat is measured. In 1912, American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville created the Scoville Organoleptic Test to measure capsaicin, the molecule in peppers that contributes most of the heat. Capsaicin concentrations can range from as mild as zero Scoville units in sweet bell peppers to as high as 2 million in the white-hot Trinidad Moruga Scorpion and Carolina Reaper varieties.
Part of the pepper plant’s natural defense strategy against pests and invasive organisms lies in the very compounds that deliver intense flavor and heat. Capsaicin drives away invaders, yet for humans, this fiery phytochemical provides powerful nutritional value. Dried chiles are a concentrated source of vitamin C, and they're also high in vitamin A and beta-carotene, which are necessary for optimum health particularly relating to eyesight, immune function, skin and mucus membranes.
Can peppers alleviate pain and treat cancer?
What I find exciting is that peppers are rich in opiate-like chemicals, the “high”-generating neurotransmitters that block our sense of pain. While peppers can make pain disappear, they may also lower blood pressure, so the heart and head are well protected by these feisty fruits. If you are a fan of strenuous exercise, then be delighted by the fact that eating chiles can initiate the release of endorphins during training, which gives you a feeling of euphoria, drug-free. Your workouts improve with a dash of hot sauce.
As an anti-cancer treatment, recent research into hot peppers shows promising activity against cancer cells. Red hot chile peppers appear to have chemotherapeutic effects and can induce cancer cell suicide, or apoptosis. According to a 2014 study published in Tumor Biology, the capsaicin in hot peppers like cayenne and jalapeños may have the ability to zero in on some cancer-causing agents and have a protective effect on the stomach.
More research is still needed, but it’s hard to ignore the bounty of medicine that exists in nature’s plant offerings. If you can learn to love the heat, hot peppers deliver remarkable nutritional strength in every fire-breathing bite.
When nutritional therapy practitioner Tosca Reno was raising five children under one roof she still managed to write numerous books. Her New York Times best seller is Your Best Body Now (Harlequin, 2010), and Tosca Reno’s Eat Clean Cookbook (Robert Kennedy Publishing, 2009) was nominated for the prestigious Gourmand World Cookbook Award. Order copies of her books at toscareno.com.
Some peppers and their Scoville ratings
Sweet Bell Pepper:
jalapeño : 2,500 - 8,000
Cayenne : 30,000 - 50,000
Thai Pepper: 50,000 - 100,000
Habanero : 350,000
Red Savina Habanero : 577,000
bhut jolokia (ghost pepper): 855,000 - 1,041,427
Trinidad moruga Scorpion: 2,000,000
carolina reaper : 1,400,000 - 2,200,000
See also Grilled Stuffed Cubanelle Peppers