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Peppers and Your Health

A look at the potential health benefits that peppers may hold.

Capsaicin: From Pain to Pleasure

What about the noteworthy antioxidant that gives spicy peppers their zing? You know, that tear-jerking, sweat-inducing, fiery blast of heat?

That's capsaicin. It's a flavorless, odorless, colorless compound found in varying amounts in peppers. Fiery habaneros contain the most. Jalapeños have some. Bell peppers have none.

"The more capsaicin, the hotter the pepper, and the higher the antioxidant level," says Malena Perdermo, MS, RD, CDE, affiliate professor of nutrition in the health professions department at the Metropolitan State College of Denver. "Red chilies are usually hotter, but even the green ones have capsaicin. You can't always go by the color to determine how hot it is," says Perdermo, who is also the American Dietetic Association's Latino Nutrition spokesperson.

Capsaicin was likely an adaptation by peppers to keep animals from eating them, says Heber. Unfortunately, peppers are standoffish with humans as well, hitting pain receptors on the tongue's nerve cells, which sends a message to the brain. But with constant exposure, these cells can become desensitized.

"Once a person gets used to a chili pepper on the tongue," says Heber, "it actually becomes pleasant. Hot peppers release endorphins, the pleasure hormone." How that happens isn't clear. But people in ancient Aztec and Mayan societies, Heber says, even considered chili peppers an aphrodisiac.

Capsaicin's Potential Health Benefits

Because of the complex mixtures of phytochemicals in peppers and other plants, it is not easy to confirm their individual health benefits. Many genetic and lifestyle factors affect a person's health.

However, capsaicin has captured the interest of many researchers and is beginning to unveil a few of its secrets. Here's a sample of what the research shows.

Weight loss benefits without the burn? The capsaicin in peppers has been shown to slightly curb appetite -- at least briefly, says Heber. And peppers can raise body temperature. That warming effect may have another benefit that may help with weight loss.

Calorie Burning

Heber and his UCLA colleagues recently turned to peppers while trying to help obese patients on an 800 calorie-a-day diet. "When you're on a low-calorie diet, your metabolic rate goes down about 10% to 15% and exercise will not raise it," says Heber. "We wanted to see if chili peppers could increase metabolism in cases like these."

Heber's team used a synthetic form of dihydrocapsiate (DCT), a compound similar to capsaicin but not spicy. Obese patients taking the DCT supplement burned, on average, an extra 80 calories a day - twice that of those taking a placebo.

It's a modest effect, similar to that of green tea or caffeine, says Heber, but adding peppers to your diet can't hurt your weight loss efforts. And, although he says he doesn't want to "oversell it," Heber says this metabolic boost might help over time, especially when combined with peppers' proven ability to dampen appetite during meals.

Of course, capsaicin is not a weight loss wonder. It doesn't change the other cornerstones of weight loss: a healthy diet and physical activity plan and a calorie budget in which calories burned exceed calories consumed.

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