Known for their hot flavor, chili peppers (Capsicum annuum) are primarily used for culinary purposes, as a spice added to various dishes and sauces.1 The chili is a fruit pod of the capsicum pepper plant belonging to the nightshade family (Solanaceae). Cayenne, jalapeno, habanero and serrano peppers are some of the most popular varieties of chili peppers.2
Chili peppers were first cultivated by ancient farmers in Central and South America, regions whose cuisines are famous for their piquant flavor.3 Today, chili peppers are grown all over the world, but Mexico, China, Spain, Nigeria and Turkey are among the largest commercial producers.4
Chili pepper contains a bioactive plant compound called capsaicin, which is responsible for its hot and spicy kick.5,6 Capsaicin is concentrated in the seeds and white inner membrane; the more capsaicin it contains, the spicier the pepper.7,8 Whether eaten fresh, dried or powdered (known as paprika), chili peppers can put fire on your tongue and perhaps even a tear in your eye.
What Makes Chili Peppers Healthy?
Capsaicin offers more than just a pungent oral sensation in your mouth — experts say the endorphin rush it causes makes this chemical compound an effective remedy for pain and other medical conditions.
Dr. Ashwin Mehta, director of integrative medicine at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine, said, "It's used for all kinds of arthritis pain, as well as for neuropathic pain and dermatologic conditions that have a painful itch."9 Aside from pain relief, capsaicin has shown promise in weight loss by helping reduce calorie intake and shrinking fat tissue.10 Chili also offers these benefits:11
• Helps Fight Inflammation — Capsaicin has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and it has shown potential for treating inflammatory diseases and cancer. In fact, a research published in Future Oncology indicated that it can suppress the growth of human prostate cancer cells.12,13
• Boosts Immunity — Chili peppers are rich in beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the body. This vitamin is essential for maintaining healthy mucous membranes to help protect the body from invading pathogens (microorganisms that cause disease). Chili is also rich in vitamin C, and this helps the body produce white blood cells that fight germs.14
• Helps Reduce Insulin Levels — Another known benefit of eating chili peppers is how they help with blood sugar level management. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that the regular consumption of chili may help reduce risk of hyperinsulinemia (high insulin levels in the blood).15
• Protects Your Heart — The compound capsaicin can help reduce triglycerides, cholesterol and platelet aggregation. Some studies have shown that it may assist the body in dissolving fibrin, which prevents the formation of blood clots. Additionally, cultures that use hot peppers regularly in cooking have significantly lower heart attack and stroke rates.16
• Prevents Sinusitis and Relieves Congestion — Another health effect of the compound capsaicin is its ability to address nasal congestion by helping clear mucus from your nose. It has antibacterial properties as well, and can help fight chronic sinus infections.17Aside from capsaicin, chili also contains other beneficial bioactive plant compounds, including:18,19
- Capsanthin. This is the primary carotenoid (antioxidant) in red chili peppers, giving them their red color and typically accounting for up to 50 percent of the spice's antioxidant content.
- Lutein. Most plentiful in immature (green) chili peppers, it has been shown to help maintain and improve eye health.20
- Volaxanthin. It is the main carotenoid found in yellow chili peppers, which accounts for 37 to 68 percent of their total content.
- Sinapic acid. Also known as sinapinic acid, this antioxidant is known for its neuroprotective potential.21
- Ferulic acid. This compound has shown promise in protecting against diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases.22
The Other Uses of Chili
Chili doesn't just offer culinary and health uses; it can also be used for self-defense. Oleoresin capsicum (OC), extracted from red hot chili peppers, is the active ingredient in pepper spray. OC is an inflammatory agent that makes the eyes and mucous membranes of the upper respiratory swell. Pepper spray causes breathing difficulties, runny nose, pain in the eyes and temporary blindness.23
The capsaicin in chili can also be used to repel insects and wild animals, which is the reason it is often used as natural pesticide for gardens.24 If you want to use it to help repel pests, just mix 1 1/2 teaspoons of chili powder in a quart of water and add two drops of liquid dish soap. Take note that some plants are sensitive to chili powder sprays, so you need to test it first on a few leaves.
How to Grow Chili Peppers at Home
Growing chili peppers takes about six months so you should plant them by May, although starting early is recommended so the plant will ripen just in time for summer. Here's a simple step-by-step guide for growing chilies adapted from The Telegraph:25
- Fill a multicell seed tray with rich organic soil, firm it down and moisten with water. Place a seed in each cell, then lightly cover with soil.
- Use a very fine hose to water it gently and then cover with cling film and keep in a warm area of your home. The soil should be moist but not soaked.
- After about two to four weeks, when there's a first sign of growth, move to a warm place with plenty of light — but it shouldn't be in direct sunlight. Water the plant from below to strengthen the roots, and check daily to ensure the surface is moist.
- When the seedlings sprout a second set of leaves, transplant to 7-centimeter (2.75 inches) pots with moist soil and use liquid tomato for weekly feeding.
- Once the plants reach 12 centimeters (4.72 inches), transplant to larger pots, and fill with soil to approximately 1 centimeter (.39 inch) from the top. You should support the plants using a cane when they reach 20 centimeters (7.87 inches).
- When the plants reach 30 centimeters (11.8 inches), pinch out the growing tips right above the fifth set of leaves in order to encourage bushiness. Transplant to another pot if needed and make sure to check the plant daily for aphids.
- When the flowers appear, gently dab a cotton bud into every flower to pollinate.
- Cut off the first chilies while still green to encourage fruiting all season long (July to October). Allow the next fruit to turn red if you want a rounder flavor.
Cooking With Chili
If you want to try some chili pepper recipes, remember that the smallest peppers are usually the hottest, and the stems and seeds are typically removed during preparation. Moreover, the capsaicin oils in chilies can irritate and burn your skin (and your eyes), so wear rubber gloves when handling this spice.26 Chili peppers taste great with beans, just like this delicious dish from my book "Healthy Recipes for Your Nutritional Type:"
Beef and Bean Chili Recipe
- 2 pounds 100 percent grassfed beef
- 1 1/2 cups kidney beans (drain and rinse)
- 7 tomatoes (crushed)
- 1 medium jalapeno chili (remove the ribs and seeds then mince)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
- 2 cups chopped onions
- 2 cups tomato sauce
- 1/4 cup plain traditionally cultured yogurt made from organic raw milk
- 1/4 cup grassfed cheddar cheese (grated)
- 2 tablespoons garlic cloves (minced)
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
Procedure: This recipe makes four servings.
- Heat a heavy 5-quart pot, then add the ground beef. Cook, stirring and breaking up the meat until it turns brown (make sure it doesn't burn). Drain the excess fat and leave just a small amount to cook the onions in.
- Add the onions and cook for five minutes. Mix in the garlic and jalapeno and cook until tender. Stir in the chili powder and cumin and continue to cook until it becomes fragrant.
- Stir in the crushed tomatoes and then the tomato sauce, and let it simmer for about 30 minutes.
- Add the beans and continue to cook uncovered until the meat and beans become very tender and the chili turns thick (about 30 minutes more).
- Serve in small bowls and garnish each bowl with 1 tablespoon each of yogurt and cheddar cheese.
You Should Try Chili Oil too
A staple condiment of Chinese, Thai and Korean cuisine, chili oil is commonly used as a condiment. Its deliciously fragrant, reddish orange infusion of chili peppers in a base oil can make almost any humdrum dish sing. Chili oil comes in handy when your palate craves a little more heat, kicking up your taste buds a notch.
The good news is that you can easily make chili oil at home, so you can be sure that it is pure and hygienic. Note that some commercial chili oils are adulterated with synthetic dyes, which can be detrimental to your health.27 If you want to learn how to make chili oil, here's a recipe adapted from The Woks of Life:28
Chili Oil Recipe
- Gently warm the oil, star anise, cinnamon stick, bay leaves and Sichuan peppercorns in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. When the oil starts to bubble slightly, turn the heat down to medium.
- Let the oil simmer for 30 minutes. If you start to see that slight bubbling die down, periodically turn the heat back up to medium-high, then back down to medium if it gets too hot.
- You'll know the oil is done cooking when the seeds and pods turn darker in color.
- Allow the oil to cool for five minutes, and in a separate heat-proof bowl, measure out the crushed red pepper flakes and Himalayan salt.
- Remove the aromatics from the oil, slowly pour it over the chili flakes and then stir well. When completely cooled, transfer to a sealable, sterilized glass bottle using a funnel.
- Seal the bottle then store it in the refrigerator and use within six months.
This recipe makes about 2 1/4 cups. Chili oil is not only a must-have condiment that adds a reddish tinge and piquancy to many Asian recipes, but it can also be used for various healing purposes. It contains nutrients from the chili pepper and the base oil, and some percentage of these nutrients leach into the oil. Chili oil has a capsaicin content of about 7 percent, so it can offer the same health benefits of chili peppers.29
There are a few important things to remember when preparing, cooking and storing chili oil. It generally has a long shelf life and can last up to six months if stored in the pantry or up to one year when refrigerated.30
But like any other infused oils, it may create an anaerobic (there is little to no breathable oxygen) environment where botulism, a rare but potentially life-threatening bacterial illness, can occur.31 Heating the oil and chilies to kill any bacteria, sterilizing your container before use and using dried flavoring agents, will reduce any potential risks.32