Pepper: nutrition facts and health benefits

Pepper

Pepper is a fruit used as a vegetable derived from the plant with the same name. This annual plant belongs to the Chili family, and grows only in temperate climates. This is a sweet variety that was obtained by selection. The fruit, which is a very large berry, has a smooth red or yellow skin, depending on the varieties, which surrounding a fine flesh, more or less voluminous, the pulp. It forms a kind of capsule where many flat seeds are contained.

History of pepper

According to vestiges found in a Tehuacan cave in Mexico, the chili has been domesticated for at least 7 000 years (9 000 according to some, which would make it the oldest cultivated plant in America).

When comparing the small cayenne pepper, considered as a spice, to the big pepper of the market, considered a vegetable, it’s hard to believe that they come from the same plant. This is the case, and the reason for the confusion sometimes exists between the terms “pepper” and “chili”. Originating from Bolivia and surrounding areas, from where it quickly spread throughout the area covering South America, Central America and Mexico, the chili has been the subject of an important selection work which has led to the many varieties we know today, and whose flavor goes from the very sweet to the very pungent.

On the return of his first trip to America, Columbus introduced chili pepper to Europe. The Spaniards, relayed by the Portuguese, spread it rapidly in the world, and it was adopted in many national cuisines. It’s not known when exactly the four-lobed pepper appeared in Europe, but it would have been mentioned the first time in 1699 by an Englishman named Wafer, pirate of his state, who would have seen it in Panama plants loaded with these big fruits.

Pepper health profile

Although it’s used as a vegetable, the pepper is actually the fruit of a plant. There are several varieties differing in their shapes, sizes, flavors and, above all, their colors. The peppers change colour during ripening: the green pepper is picked before its full maturity. If left on the plant, it will become yellow, then orange and then red at the very end of its ripening.

Active principles and properties

Several prospective and epidemiological studies have observed that high consumption of vegetables and fruit decreases the risk of cardiovascular diseases, certain cancers and other chronic diseases. Some action mechanisms have been proposed to explain this protective effect; the presence of antioxidants in vegetables and fruits could play a role in it.

Antioxidants. Antioxidants are compounds protecting the body’s cells from damage caused by free radicals. The latter are highly reactive molecules that would be involved in the development of cardiovascular diseases, certain cancers and other diseases related to aging. The antioxidant activity of peppers may vary depending on their stage of ripening, but also according to their geographical origin, the season and the conditions of cultivation. Green and red peppers contain varying amounts of several types of antioxidants. The red peppers contain more than the green ones.

Phenolic compounds. Phenolic compounds are antioxidant substances present in foods of plant origin. Flavonoids (mainly quercetin) and derivatives of hydroxycinnamic acid were quantified in the pepper. The flavonoid content gradually decreases with the ripening of the pepper. Thus, it’s five to eight times higher in green peppers (plucked before maturity) than in red peppers. Phenolic compounds are mainly located in the peel of the pepper, which fortunately is commonly consumed.

Carotenoids. Carotenoids are also compounds with antioxidant properties. The consumption of foods rich in carotenoids would be related to a lesser risk of suffering from certain cancers. The predominant carotenoids of green pepper are lutein and beta-carotene. As a comparison, green peppers contain three and six times less carotenoids than broccoli and spinach (for an equivalent weight), respectively. Red peppers have high content in beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin, precursors of vitamin A in the body, and in different xanthophylls. According to health authority’s nutrient file, red pepper also contains lycopene. For the purpose of comparison, it contains four to five times less than the pink grapefruit. In total, red peppers contain nearly nine times more carotenoid pigments than green peppers.

Vitamin C. Pepper is one of the best sources of vitamin C. The content in this vitamin increases during the ripening of the pepper and and is about twice as high in red peppers as in green ones, which did not reach their full maturity. Vitamin C has antioxidant properties and may be partly responsible for the beneficial effects associated with high fruit and vegetable consumption. In one study, the consumption of about 80 mg of vitamin C in the form of vegetable soup (500 ml, containing tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers) for 14 days increased the levels of vitamin C in the blood on average by 24%. Such a vitamin C contribution corresponds to about 125 ml of green pepper or 70 ml of red or yellow pepper. These results showed that increased levels of vitamin C in the blood (and potentially other active compounds) contributed to the reduction of oxidation and inflammation in the body, a protective effect against the onset of some Degenerative diseases associated with aging.

Cancer. Special attention has been paid to the potential anti-cancer effects of pepper. Indeed, pepper extracts have been shown to inhibit the formation or action of certain carcinogenic compounds (such as nitrosamines) in vitro. In addition, a study showed that the consumption of peppers and other vegetables could reduce the risk of being affected by a brain tumor (which could be a cause of nitrosamines). The antioxidant compounds of pepper (including vitamin C and carotenoids) may partly explain the obtained results, but more research is needed to identify the active principles and to better understand the mechanisms involved.

For optimum conservation

The vitamin C content of the peppers tends to vary during storage. According to recent data, the conservation of green peppers at room temperature for 10 days after harvesting would increase their vitamin C content.

Under the same conditions, this vitamin tends to decrease in red peppers, since the latter have already reached their full maturity. In addition, after 20 days of storage in the refrigerator, there would be no loss of vitamin C in green peppers and a small decrease (15%) in red peppers.

The freezing also plays on the vitamin C content of the peppers. However, water-laundering before freezing would reduce losses by about 25%.

Precautions

Green Pepper is one of the foods which can be implicated in oral allergy syndrome. This syndrome is an allergic reaction to certain proteins of a range of fruits, vegetables and nuts. It affects some people with allergies to the environment’s pollen. This syndrome is almost always preceded by hay fever. When some people allergic to birch pollen consume raw green pepper (cooking usually degrades allergen proteins), an immunological reaction may occur. Local symptoms that are confined to the mouth, lips, and throat such as itching and burning sensations can then occur, and usually disappear for a few minutes after consuming or touching the food being implicated. In the absence of other symptoms, this reaction is not serious and the consumption of green pepper does not have to be avoided systematically. However, it’s recommended to consult an allergist to determine the cause of the reactions to plant foods. The latter will be able to assess whether special precautions should be taken.

Selection and conservation

Preparation

To peel the pepper, it is usually recommended to roast it on all sides directly on the flame of a gas cooker, using a blowtorch or in the oven. When the skin is partially charred, it’s put in a bag of paper or plastic to make it “sweat” about twenty minutes. The skin then peels off easily. However, this process has the effect of altering the organoleptic qualities of the pepper and giving it a grilled flavor that is not suitable for all recipes.

Remove the seeds as well as the white membrane, rather indigestible.

Conservation

It’s best to keep the pepper in a dry and cool place rather than in the refrigerator if you plan to eat it quickly.

Refrigerator: It can be kept about a week in the crisper. Place it without washing it in a perforated bag.

Freezer: Wash and remove the white seeds and membranes from the peppers. Cut diced, sliced or strips. Spread the pieces on a plate and put in the freezer for at least one hour. Then enclose the pieces of pepper in airtight bags and return to freeze. Peppers can also be laundered beforehand by boiling for 5 minutes.

Organic gardening

Seed: Put seeds eight to ten weeks before the last frost in bins inside, and ensure that the seedlings receive all the light they need.

Transplant: when the soil is warmed in a sunny place, spacing 30 to 45 cm in the row and from 70 to 90 cm between the rows. To promote the warming of the soil, cover the deck or the rank of a black plastic as soon as possible in the spring. At the time of planting, replace the plastic with a thick mulch of leaves or straw.

Fertilization: Before planting, add a good pellet of compost to the hole and then fertilize it for two weeks with a foliar fertilizer based on algae and fish extract.

Protect the plants with a geotextile cloth or plastic cages when the night temperature drops below 15 ºC.

In a windy area, it is better to tutor the plants.

Ripening

Between the time the pepper reaches its full size and the one where it turns red (full ripening), depending on the varieties, it will take 12 to 28 days if the temperature is between 18 ºC and 24 ºC. Below 18 ºC, the curing process slows considerably, while below 15 ºC, it ceases completely. It is therefore important to choose early varieties. In the four-lobed pepper category, King Arthur, Lady Bell, La Bamba, Merlin, Ace, Bell Boy and Red Knight are doing well in temperated climates. In the other categories, round of Hungary (ribbed), Lipstick (cone shaped) and Jingle bells (miniature) are also early.

Ecology and environment

The genus Capsicum includes many wild species that are virtually untapped in agriculture. Because of their genetic diversity, these species are an exceptional resource for those who work to improve cultivated species and to create new varieties. Unfortunately, this genetic diversity is at present threatened by the fact that the wild habitats of Capsicum is subjected to a high pressure caused by human activities, particularly by deforestation, which is practiced on a large scale in South AmericaP. The researchers who are interested in Capsicum are therefore working to establish seed banks in the hope of saving what remains of this important genetic background.

 

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