Cayenne pepper is a spice in the capsicum family often sold in a dried, powdered form. It’s one of the most widely used peppers in the world and can be used to flavour a host of dishes, with its level of heat described as “moderate” (around 30,000 Scoville units).
This pepper is in the same family as both the sweet pepper and deadly nightshade, and in addition to adding heat and flavour to food, it is also sold as an herbal supplement and used liberally in many so-called “detox” drinks. It might not be the most obvious of “health” supplements—it’s not a lush green herb, and it doesn’t have a history of use in ancient medicine—but there are some very promising health studies out there.
Health Benefits of Cayenne Pepper
There are a number of health benefits to consuming cayenne pepper, providing it is consumed in moderation and as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle. These benefits include:
1. It Could Aid with Weight Loss
There are “cleanses” that call for the use of cayenne pepper and promise that you’ll lose weight. They claim that cayenne helps improve thermogenesis—which basically means it’s forcing your body to burn more calories—and while there is a lot of pseudoscience and many dangers concerning these cleanses (more on that below), there is some truth to this claim.
We have to stress that it’s not going to have a massive and instant impact, but it could lead to fewer temptations and slightly more energy expenditure.
2. It Can Help Fight Pain
Cayenne pepper may make you feel like your mouth and stomach are on fire, but it can also increase production of natural pain-killing hormones. If applied to the skin in the form of capsaicin cream, it can also have direct pain-killing properties.
These creams can help with everything from muscle pain to menstrual pain, and for this reason, capsaicin is the main active ingredient in Deep Heat and other painkilling creams.
3. It Could Reduce the Risk of Cancer
Not only does cayenne pepper contain cancer-fighting antioxidant compounds, but the capsaicin content may also play a direct role in fighting cancer cells. (3) More research needs to be done before any conclusions can be drawn, and a little cayenne every now and then will not prevent or cure cancer, but it could play a small part in the bigger picture.
Cayenne Pepper Nutrition
Chilli peppers are not exactly nutritional powerhouses and don’t come close to nutrient-dense herbs like parsley. A single 5g serving will provide only around 5% to 10% of your daily needs of many B vitamins, as well as vitamin K, C, and E. But it will also give you around half of your daily needs of vitamin A.
Although it’s not overly impressive at first glance—especially when you consider that 5g equals around 1 tablespoon and most dishes require around half or a third of that—it’s still a good way to introduce key nutrients to your diet and to top-up your daily intake.
Cayenne pepper is widely tolerated and shouldn’t produce any serious issues for the average consumer. However, you should be aware of some adverse reactions. Firstly, while cayenne pepper and hot peppers in general don’t actually burn the mouth or digestive tract, they can lead the body to think it has consumed something very hot and caustic, and this in turn could trigger nausea and vomiting.
If you consume a large quantity of cayenne peppers and don’t have a high tolerance, then you may be more prone to these reactions. There have also been incidences of people vomiting so much from pepper consumption that they have caused serious and irreversible damage to their oesophagus and throat.
Cayenne peppers can increase the production of mucous, leading to a runny nose and phlegmy cough; trigger bouts of acid reflux; and cause stomach pains and diarrhoea.
Caution is advised following surgery, as consuming it may increase the risk of bleeding, and it’s also not recommended in significant quantities by pregnant or breastfeeding women.
Cayenne Pepper Detox Drinks
Cayenne pepper is often used as part of a detox drink that also contains water, lemon juice, and maple syrup. We’ve talked about these so-called detoxes many times on this site and won’t go into detail again here, but these drinks don’t do what they promise to do, and while they do provide some benefits, it’s rarely because of the reasons they claim.
If you drink nothing but lemon water, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup for a few days then you will definitely lose weight, but mainly because you’ve drastically reduced your calorie intake.
An occasional fast could actually be good for your health if it is done safely and not to excess, and the sugars in maple syrup in combination with the antioxidants in cayenne could provide some support during a fast. However, there are better ways to take advantage of those health benefits, there are safer things to consume, and contrary to what you may have heard, this basic drink will not somehow “leech toxins out of your body”. It’s much more likely to give you aggressive reflux and diarrhoea while rapidly depleting your body of essential nutrients and calories.
By all means, add some more cayenne to your diet, as it really is a healthy spice, but don’t expect it to work miracles on its own, never use it as a replacement for real food, and don’t consume this spice (or anything else) to excess.
The Best Cayenne Pepper
As with everything, there are many varieties of cayenne, and these are produced to all degrees of quality. You can pay anywhere from £5 for a 500g bag of a basic variety, to £10 for a 50g jar of a premium, organic variety.
The way cayenne varieties are grown, harvested, and processed can differ greatly, so there will be notable differences in taste and quality from one to the next. However, even a budget cayenne pepper will provide many aforementioned health benefits, so you don’t need to spend big to reap the rewards.
If you love the spice and the nuances in flavour, or you want to stick with only organic varieties, by all means splurge on a premium product. However, you shouldn’t be paying as much for cayenne as you pay for premium spices like saffron and mature vanilla pods.