Pepper Power: Nutrition and Other Benefits

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on November 30, 2022
4 min read

Peppers have a lot going for them. They're low in calories and are loaded with good nutrition. All varieties are excellent sources of vitamins A and C, potassium, folic acid, and fiber. Plus, the spicy ones liven up bland food, making it more satisfying.

Peppers come in all sizes and colors. Some pack heat. Others are sweet. You can get them fresh, frozen, dried, or canned.

You've seen bell peppers -- green, orange, yellow, and red -- in the grocery store or in a salad bar. Red peppers pack the most nutrition, because they've been on the vine longest.

Green peppers are harvested earlier before they have a chance to turn yellow, orange, and then red. Compared to green bell peppers, the red ones have almost 11 times more beta-carotene and 2 times more vitamin C.

All peppers are part of the capsicum family. They got their start in Latin America thousands of years ago. Peppers include:

Capsicum annum. These include bell peppers and jalapenos.

Capsicum frutescens. The tabasco pepper is in this group. 

Capsicum chinense. These include the intensely hot habanero and Scotch bonnet peppers

Capsicum baccatum (the aji pepper)

Capsicum pubescens (the rocoto pepper). 

Peppers are found all over the world and treasured in a wide variety of cuisines. Some are known for their fiery heat. Others are sweet enough to eat as a snack. Peppers are so universally enjoyed that they've even been grown on the International Space Station.

You may have heard about capsaicin, a compound found in chili peppers that may help with some pain, often in a cream or a patch. 

And if you're thinking of the black pepper that you grind up as a spice, that actually doesn't come from a capsicum. It comes from the berries (or peppercorns) of a vine called Piper nigrum.

Bell peppers are low in calories and high in nutrients, including several important vitamins, including vitamin C. You'll get 120 milligrams of vitamin C from just 1 cup of chopped green bell pepper. Vitamin C helps your body absorb iron and heal wounds. It may also play a role in preventing a variety of conditions, including heart disease and cancer, as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle. 

Other health benefits of bell peppers, within the context of a healthy lifestyle, may include:

Lower blood pressure. Several large studies show that people with high levels of vitamin C in their bodies (based on their vitamin C concentration in their plasma) are less likely to have high blood pressure, especially if they have a high-quality diet. 

Good digestive health. Despite only having 30 calories in every 1-cup serving, raw bell peppers contain 2.5 grams of dietary fiber. Dietary fiber helps promote digestive health by adding bulk to your stools. This makes them easier to pass. A diet high in fiber may also mean you're less likely to get hemorrhoids.

Reduced risk of diabetes. High-fiber foods, such as bell peppers, slow down how quickly sugar is absorbed into your bloodstream. Vitamin C may also help reduce blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes, though this was studied with supplements and not with bell peppers. Keep in mind that your overall food pattern matters more than any one particular food.

Peppers are very versatile. You can add raw ones to everything from dips and salads to pasta dishes.

Roasting peppers is easy, too. Cut a small slit near the stems. Grill or broil until blackened. Then let them steam by zipping into a plastic bag for about 15 minutes before scraping off the skin and removing the stem, core, and seeds.

Toss red peppers in a stir-fry for a hit of color, too.

When working with hot peppers, remember that they can burn your skin and eyes. Wear rubber gloves while you're handling them, keep your hands away from your face, and wash your hands as soon as you're done. Keep a glass of whole or low-fat milk nearby, too. Capsaicin won't dissolve in water. You need some fat to neutralize it.

If you've heard the claim that peppers make you lose weight, you may want to take it with a grain of salt.

Capsaicin: Found in hot peppers (including chilis and cayenne powder), capsaicin has been shown to boost metabolism as well as suppress appetite, at least slightly. Over time, this effect might give you an extra edge when it comes to weight loss. But it won't melt the pounds away.

Research shows that people who don't typically eat spicy foods are most likely to benefit from turning the heat up a notch. Capsaicin seems to affect metabolism by raising body temperature, which uses up more energy.

Dihydrocapsiate (DCT): A cousin of capsaicin, DCT is found in a strain of mild, sweet chili peppers, sometimes called CH-19 peppers.

Researchers found that DCT in capsule form acts similarly to capsaicin, minus the fiery sensation. In a small study, people who took it while following a high-protein, very low-calorie diet for a month burned about an extra 100 calories per day. However, they didn't lose more weight than people taking a placebo pill, perhaps because their diet was already very low in calories. Larger, longer studies are needed to check the results.

Piperine: Found in dried black pepper, piperine may prevent new fat cells from forming. The catch: Scientists have only studied it mouse cells, so there's no proof that it will work in people. If you like black pepper, feel free to flavor your food with it. It's calorie-free and won't raise your blood pressure. Just don't count on it to slim down.