The fruit of Capsicum species—commonly referred to as chili, chilli, chiles, aji, paprika, capsicums, chile pepper or just peppers—is one the oldest vegetables known to man and is used in cuisine worldwide.
In 2007, a collaborative of scientists from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Central University of Venezuela and Colorado State University published an archeological study in Science about finding pepper fruit starch granule fossils recovered from milling stones and cooking vessels in South and Central America. These pepper fossils were approximately 6,000 years old. Pre-Columbian cultivation and trade of peppers was extensive, and domesticated pepper starch fossils were found in southern Mexico, making southern Mexicans and Aztecs the first pepper breeders. With the help of migrating Portuguese traders, peppers were quickly distributed from their origin in the Americas to India, Asia and beyond.
On his first voyage to the Western hemisphere, Christopher Columbus mistakenly called the fiery Capsicum sp. pod “pepper” because of its heat, thinking it was a relative of black pepper. Peppers are now a common ingredient in Asian and Latin American cuisine.
According to the USDA, in 2014 Americans consumed an average of 10.6 pounds of bell peppers and 7.2 pounds of chile (non-bell) peppers. To date, there are 25 species of peppers in the genus Capsicum and thousands of cultivars within these known species.
Pepper consumption is on the rise due to the search for alternative ingredients, flavors, the influence of a diverse immigrant population and the pepper’s nutritional and medicinal value. Peppers range in color, spice and flavor traits. These traits are independent of each other and are attributed to multiple nutritional and medicinal values. Peppers have complex genetic backgrounds when it comes to pigments.
My doctoral research at the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University shed light on the variation in color and how it also influenced nutritional content. My Mexican culture includes peppers as a staple in our cuisine, but my dissertation showed that not only are peppers spicy, flavorful and delicious, but their large range in pigment color influences the amount of essential vitamins such as vitamin A.
The color of peppers depends on the specific cultivar and the ripening stage of the fruit. These pigments can be purple, brown, yellow, orange, red or green. Green peppers are not fully ripe and have been shown to have as much vitamin C as six oranges. Carotenoids, the yellow, orange and red pigments of mature pepper fruits, are powerful antioxidants and are very important to eye health. The yellow xanthophyll pigments (lutein and zeaxanthin) are associated with lower risk of macular degradation and cataracts. The orange pigment is beta-carotene, the source for vitamin A, an essential vitamin to many health processes. The red pigments, capsanthin and capsorubin, are natural red pigments used as cosmetic and deli colorants but are not related to spice levels, measured as Scoville units, in the fruit. Therefore, red peppers are not hotter than green peppers or vice versa. An interesting fact is that one teaspoon of dried red or orange ripe pepper powder has your daily requirement of vitamin A.
Flavor and Spices
From a chemical perspective, flavor and spice compounds are dramatically different and are even made in different parts of the fruit. Flavor compounds are located in the fruit wall tissue, the part we consume, whereas spice compounds, capsaicinoids, are oily and made in the tissue that holds the seeds (the placenta). Contrary to popular belief, capsaicin, being the most abundant capsaicinoid, is made and accumulates inside blisters found on the placenta and not on the seed. If the pepper fruit moves by wind or humans, the seeds brush up against these blisters, puncturing them and releasing the capsaicin, which in turn coats the seeds and the fruit with capsaicin. Capsaicin leaves a burning sensation after ingesting it and can even penetrate the skin and cause topical burns. However, due to our bodies’ response, these compounds hold medicinal properties. Topical ointments for healing pain often contain capsaicin. It has also been shown that spicy hot peppers burn calories by triggering a thermodynamic burn in the body, which speeds up the metabolism. Other uses include teas and lozenges infused with spicy peppers for the treatment of a sore throat. It is thought that American indigenous communities cultivated the pepper for centuries for both its culinary and medicinal uses.
In the United States, peppers are annual plants, which are harvested in August and September. All peppers are edible, even ornamentals. Ornamentals, however, have been bred for their appearance and usually have little to no flavor and can at times be very hot. There is a pepper variety for every dish, whether it’s spicy cayenne chocolate brownies to roasted chile rellenos. The high amount of nutritional and medicinal compounds make peppers a local superfood worthy to be a staple in every meal.
Ivette Guzman (pictured above) is a Program Teacher at the Dallas Arboretum. She has a Ph. D. from the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University.