Chilli peppers are all the rage these days. Producers are growing more than ever and making them hotter than ever, and consumer appetite for these little spices has never been greater. The question is: Are chilli peppers actually good for you? Can they lead to any side effects and serious harm? And which varieties are best for you?
The History of Chilli Peppers
Chilli peppers are fruits of plants in the nightshade family, which puts them in the same family as tomatoes and potatoes, as well as the highly toxic Deadly Nightshade. They are believed to have originated in Mexico and have been consumed for more than 7,000 years.
The English name pepper comes from Christopher Columbus, who was one of the first Europeans to encounter them. He called them peppers because they looked like black pepper (which was well known and well regarded by Europeans at the time) and because they had a hot and spicy taste.
They made it to Europe by the 15th century, and from there it is believed they spread to India, Japan, and then Korea. The exact date peppers were consumed and then grown in these countries is unknown, but we can be relatively certain they were widespread in Mexico for thousands of years before they were common elsewhere.
Are Chilli Peppers Good for You?
A serving of chilli peppers doesn’t contain a great deal of vitamins or minerals. 100g of the raw product can contain a high concentration of vitamin A, as well as a lot of dietary fibre, but even the most hardened of pepper eaters would struggle to consume that much—and there are better ways to get your fix of these nutrients.
The truly healthy compounds in chilli peppers are the antioxidants. These are responsible for a wealth of health benefits and can also help fight oxidative stress and inflammation, which is a known cause for many chronic diseases. These compounds include:
- Lutein: This antioxidant is essential for optimal eye health. It’s abundant, found in a huge number of vegetables and fruits (you can also find a lot of lutein in coriander and basil), and could benefit your health in a number of ways. Lutein is at its highest in young peppers, but it can also be found in mature peppers.
- Ferulic Acid: This is an organic compound that was first isolated from fennel—its name is actually derived from ferula, a genus of plant that includes fennel. It is a potent antioxidant that “exhibits a wide range of therapeutic effects” and is thought to protect against diseases like cancer. (1)
- Capsanthin: Found in red peppers, this is a carotenoid, which means it is a pigment responsible for giving foods their colour (in this case red). It is also a potent antioxidant that has also been used as a food colouring.
- Violaxanthin: Another carotenoid that is at its most abundant in yellow peppers. It is also found in a variety of other plants and foods, including pansies.
Why Do They Burn?
One of the compounds we didn’t mention above is something known as capsaicin. When ingested, this compound sends confusing signals to the brain, making it think the mouth is being burned. The brain then responds accordingly, leading to a burning sensation in the mouth, as well as sweating and an increased production of mucous, even though the mouth has not actually been burnt.
This is the same substance used in pepper spray—most pepper sprays are actually made using a basic alcohol extract of finely ground peppers.
The Best Varieties
You might assume that hot peppers are better for you than mild ones, and that the hotter you go, the healthier they will be, but that’s not necessarily the case. Extremely hot peppers purposely bred for their capsaicin content are consumed in infinitesimal quantities, which means you’re not getting many of the healthy compounds and you’re also getting microscopic amounts of vitamins and minerals.
It’s hard to say what the “healthiest” pepper is, but a lot has been said about the health benefits of cayenne, and we’ve actually written about this healthy spice before (see our guide to the benefits of cayenne).
Life Expectancy in Cultures that Eat Chillies
One of the ways to tell whether a particular food is healthy is to compare people who eat a lot of it to people who eat very little of it. If you can take a large enough sample size and eliminate other factors (such as drug use, cigarettes, age, and level of fitness), then this becomes a pretty good indicator.
If we do this with chilli and hot foods in general then there are a few things of note. Firstly, it’s often said that the Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest in the world, and that those who consume it have significantly lower levels of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other chronic illnesses. (2) The Mediterranean diet consists of an abundance of fresh vegetables and herbs, as well as occasional portions of fish, very little pressed meat, and very little dairy. They also eat very few chilli peppers.
Now, if you look at the average life expectancies of the five countries that consume the most peppers (Mexico, China, India, Jamaica, and Thailand), all of them are ranked outside of the world’s top 95 for the highest life expectancy. For reference, Italy is ranked 14th on this list, and both Greece and Spain are in the top 35. You’ll also see all of the Scandinavian countries placing high on this list, and they’re not big on chilli peppers either.
This doesn’t mean that peppers are somehow unhealthy and lead to shorter lifespans. Countless research has shown that wealth actually plays a bigger role in life expectancy than diet, and if you correlate this list to Gross Domestic Product, you’d see an almost exact match. It just so happens that the countries where the most chilli peppers are eaten also happen to be much poorer than their non-chilli eating counterparts.
The truth is that chilies probably are good for you in some ways, but you don’t need them to eat healthily and live a long life, you should never consume them to excess, and no matter what you eat, it’s not going to guarantee you a long life.
Side Effects and Dangers
Small amounts of chilli peppers are perfectly safe, but problems can arise if large amounts of very hot peppers are consumed. In this case, your body can react as though you have just consumed a caustic substance (as far as it’s concerned, you have), which means it will try to get rid of it quickly.
This can lead to nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea, which in turn can cause all kinds of serious issues. Repeat retching and vomiting, for instance, can lead to an expulsion of stomach acid, which can then burn the oesophagus and throat. There is no direct damage from eating chilli peppers, but they can put the body under a lot of stress, as they force it to expend more energy, and they can also lead to inflammation in the digestive tract.
If you suffer from acid reflux disease or other digestive ailments, we wouldn’t recommend taking part in any chilli eating contests, but other than that, there’s no reason not to consume hot foods every now and then.