Are Peppers Good for You?

Whether sweet or hot, they pack a nutrition and flavor punch

jalapeno, bell, and habanero peppers Photos: Getty Images

If you want to add some zing to your next meal or snack, pick up some peppers from the supermarket or farmers market. Late summer and fall is when they’re at their peak, which means they’re full of sweet, sharp, or fiery flavor.

Peppers are also low in calories but packed with nutrients, says Dana Hunnes, PhD, RD, a senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. They supply heart-healthy potassium and fiber, plus vitamins A and C to support the immune system. Yellow, orange, and red peppers deliver carotenoids, plant pigments that may protect against certain eye diseases and cancers.

Turn Up the Heat

Hot peppers may offer an extra health kick. They get their heat from capsaicin, a compound that may combat inflammation and promote blood flow. According to a 2019 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, people who ate hot peppers more than four times a week were about a third less likely to die of cardiovascular disease than those who rarely or never ate them.

More on Healthy Eating

They may also play a small role in weight loss. Research has linked capsaicin with a lower body weight and less belly fat. “It increases your metabolism and calorie burn, but the effect doesn’t last long,” Hunnes says. “You’re not going to drop 10 pounds by eating peppers alone.”

But hot peppers may change the way you eat, and that may give you a weight-loss advantage. It’s tough to scarf down spicy food, so you may wind up consuming less, Hunnes says. Plus, that burning sensation can suppress appetite. Scientists at Purdue University found that people felt less hungry for the rest of the day when they sprinkled cayenne pepper on their meals than when they didn’t.

Some people worry that eating hot peppers can cause digestive problems. Eating spicy peppers won’t damage your digestive system. In fact, research shows that the capsaicin in them may reduce stomach acids and prevent ulcers. But for some people, hot peppers can irritate the lining of the gastrointestinal tract and lead to temporary discomfort, such as heartburn or diarrhea, Hunnes says. If you’re prone to heartburn but want to try spicing up your diet, start slowly, and keep track of whether hot peppers trigger symptoms.

Pick Your Pepper

Each pepper has its own unique flavor and heat. The latter is measured on the Scoville heat scale, ranging from 0 units for a sweet bell pepper up to 300,000 for a mouth-scorching habanero.

Sweet peppers: Yellow, orange, and red bell peppers are harvested later than green, so they’re often sweeter. You can add raw or sautéed bell or other sweet peppers, such as banana peppers, to salads, stir-fries, and sandwiches. Or make roasted pepper pesto: Place eight peppers on a baking sheet and roast at 350° F for an hour, or until soft. Remove the skin, and purée peppers with olive oil, four cloves of garlic, ⅔ cup of almonds, and a pinch of salt and pepper.

Hot peppers: If you like mild spice, opt for shishito (50 to 200 Scoville heat units), Anaheim (500 to 2,500), or poblano peppers (1,000 to 2,000). Jalapeño (2,500 to 8,000) and serrano peppers (10,000 to 25,000) add more sizzle. For extra fire, choose Thai (50,000 to 100,000) or habanero (more than 100,000).

Wear plastic or rubber gloves when you’re handling hot peppers, Hunnes advises. Then wash your hands and cutting board and other utensils afterward. Getting capsaicin on your hands and then touching other parts your body can lead to pain and irritation. If you eat something that’s too hot, grab a glass of milk or another dairy product. That will cool the burn, possibly because a protein in dairy binds to capsaicin.

An easy way to work peppers into a meal is to toss them in oil, then broil or grill them for 10 to 20 minutes. Turn them often as the skin blisters and the flesh softens. Wipe off the charred pieces or peel the skin. Serve on top of fish or poultry, or blend into a salsa or sauce. (Try the recipe for Salmon With Roasted Tomato-Pepper Salsa, below.) Or stuff halved, seeded peppers with vegetables or tuna and cheese, then bake.

jalapeno, bell, and habanero peppers

Photo: Wendell T. Webber Photo: Wendell T. Webber

Salmon With Roasted Tomato-Pepper Salsa

8 whole plum tomatoes
2 whole poblano peppers
2 whole jalapeño peppers
1 small red onion, peeled and quartered
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
2 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of 1 lime (about 2 tablespoons)
½ teaspoon ground cumin
⅓ cup chopped cilantro
½ teaspoon salt
1¼ pounds salmon filet
Black pepper, to taste

Directions

1. Preheat broiler. Place the tomatoes, peppers, onion, and garlic on a broiler pan. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Broil 10 to 15 minutes, turning once, until tomatoes are tender and peppers and onion are slightly blackened. Cool 5 minutes.

2. Core the tomatoes; discard the cores and peel off the skin. Wearing plastic gloves to protect your hands from pepper burn, cut the peppers in half; remove the seeds, membranes, and skin (if it peels easily; if not, leave it on). Remove the skin from the garlic. Place the tomatoes, peppers, onion, garlic, lime juice, and cumin in a food processor. Pulse to chop; don’t purée. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the cilantro and ¼ teaspoon of the salt.

3. Brush the salmon with the remaining tablespoon of oil. Sprinkle with the remaining salt and pepper. Broil about 10 to 12 minutes or until the fish is cooked through. Slice the salmon into six pieces and serve with the tomato-pepper salsa.

Makes 6 servings

Nutrition information per serving: 270 calories, 18 g fat, 3.5 g saturated fat, 7 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 3 g sugars (0 g added), 21 g protein, 260 mg sodium

Editor’s Note: A version of this article also appeared in the October 2021 issue of Consumer Reports On Health


Sharon Liao

Sharon Liao

Sharon Liao is a writer and editor specializing in health, nutrition, and fitness. She lives in Redondo Beach, Calif.