Peppers and Your Health
A look at the potential health benefits that peppers may hold.
Peppers -- hot or not -- may do more than round out your omelet, spice up your salsa, and make for a colorful stir-fry. They help you get some of your daily vitamins and contain compounds that may be linked to weight loss, pain reduction, and other benefits.
Peppers, by the way, are fruits, not vegetables. They have been popular for a long time, including with the ancient Aztecs. And now they’re getting new attention from researchers eager to unlock their potential health benefits.
Here’s what nutrition and health experts say about these tropical plants from the nightshade family.
Phytochemicals in Peppers
Whether spicy or sweet, peppers contain many phytochemicals, which are naturally occurring compounds found in plants.
"Close to a million have been identified in nature," says David Heber, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and public health and chief and founding director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the Division of Clinical Nutrition at UCLA. He is also author of several nutrition books, including What Color Is Your Diet?
Many of peppers' phytochemicals have antioxidant abilities. This means they can help neutralize free radicals in the body, which damage cells. So they may help prevent or reduce symptoms of certain diseases. Similar to hormones, some phytochemicals also act as messengers in the body, Heber says.
Peppers come in a rainbow of colors, including green, red, yellow, orange, and even purple, brown, and black.
"Each color of pepper is associated with a different family of phytochemicals," Heber says. But there's a lot of overlap in nature. "So it's not like you need to have a certain type of chili pepper, or you're going to die." The problem occurs when you don't eat enough variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, spices, and herbs, he says.
Peppers' Top Performers
Whether mild or fiery, peppers are nutrient-dense. They're one of the richest sources of vitamins A and C. Just a cup a day can provide more than 100% of your daily needs.
Go for a variety of colors in peppers to get the biggest bang for your buck. Red bell peppers are a good source of fiber, folate, vitamin K, and the minerals molybdenum and manganese. And, they're especially rich in nutrients and phytochemicals such as:
- Vitamin A, which may help preserve eyesight, and fend off infections
- Vitamin C, which may lower cancer risk and protect against cataracts
- Vitamin B6, which is vital for essential chemical reactions throughout the body, including those involving brain and immune function
- Lutein and zeaxanthin, which may slow the development of eye diseases, such as cataracts or macular degeneration
- Beta-carotene, which may help protect against certain types of cancer, such as breast cancer in women before menopause
- Lycopene, which may decrease the risk for ovarian cancer