A Hot Pepper Pop Quiz


The stuff that gives chili peppers their fire and their health benefits is the unique chemical capsaicin. It’s concentrated in the white “ribs,” membranes and seeds of green and red chili peppers such as jalapeño and serrano.

True or false?

Hot peppers damage your stomach

False. “Chili peppers get a bad rap,” says David Y. Graham, M.D., of the Baylor College of Medicine. To prove they don’t injure the stomach, he actually put ground jalapeños through a tube directly into subjects’ stomachs and took photos; there was no sign of erosion of the stomach lining or other harm. In fact, Graham says, research suggests hot peppers protect the stomach. His advice: “If it doesn’t hurt you, eat them.”

Hot peppers cure ulcers

False. Believe it or not, some medical researchers tout hot peppers as a new ulcer “cure.” The reason: Bacteria called H. pylori cause most ulcers, and in test tubes, chili’s capsaicin stops those bacteria dead. But not in human stomachs, Graham says. He recently fed people infected with H. pylori a meal laced with six sliced fresh jalapeños. The hot stuff had no effect on the ulcer-causing bacteria. Conclusion: It appears hot peppers don’t cause, cure or aggravate ulcers.

Hot peppers promote heartburn

True. Hot peppers do not cause new cases of heartburn but do worsen existing heartburn, finds Sheila Stanley, Ph.D., of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. In her new study, people who had four or more heartburn attacks a week ate a sausage-egg breakfast with either a 5-milligram cayenne capsule or a dummy capsule. The cayenne induced earlier and more severe heartburn, as well as more bloating and abdominal pain. Researchers concluded that peppers somehow promote a more toxic response in heartburn sufferers.

Hot peppers lower cholesterol

False. Popular reports to the contrary, there is no good evidence hot peppers benefit cholesterol. But they may help combat heart disease by acting as a mild, transient anticoagulant. In Thai studies, jalapeños boosted subjects’ blood clot-dissolving activity. And capsaicin prolongs bleeding in laboratory animals. Capsaicin also fights inflammation, a newly identified villain in heart disease.

Hot peppers cause cancer Probably false. One large Mexican study suggested that eating lots of hot peppers boosted the risk of stomach cancer. But a large Italian study found just the opposite: Eating more chilies reduced the odds of stomach cancer. Populations around the world who eat lots of peppers do not have more stomach cancer, so experts do not think it’s a worry. In some test- tube and animal tests, capsaicin even has an anti-cancer effect, blocking cancer and slowing tumor growth.

Hot peppers help control weight

True. Surprisingly, hot peppers may be fat-busters. Past British research found spicy foods, including hot sauce, speed up metabolism, burning extra calories. New research at Canada’s Laval University shows hot sauce with capsaicin suppresses appetite and reduces calorie intake. Men who got an appetizer with hot sauce ate 200 fewer calories at lunch and in a later snack than men who did not.

Hot peppers help you breathe better

True. If you have asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, sinusitis, congestion from a cold or the flu, or other breathing problems, eat hot peppers and hot sauce, advises Irwin Ziment, M.D., professor of medicine at UCLA. He says hot peppers work like expectorants. Capsaicin in the mouth, throat and stomach triggers a flash flood of fluids in the air passages, breaking up mucus, flushing out the sinuses and washing away irritants. “When you’re congested,” Ziment says, “it’s better to eat salsa than to suck on a menthol cough drop.”

Sources for this article

Hot peppers cure ulcers
Graham DY, American J Gastroenterol 1999 May; 94(5): 1200-2

Hot peppers promote heartburn
Rodriguez-Stanley, S., et al. The effects of capsaicin on reflux, gastric emptying and dyspepsia. Aliment Pharmacol Ther 2000; 14:129-134

Hot peppers lower cholesterol
Visudhiphan S., et al. American J Clinical Nutrition, June 1982; 35(6): 1452-58
Wang, J.P., et al Thromb Res 1985 Mar 15:37(6): 669-79

Hot peppers help control weight
Yoshioka M., et al. Br J Nutr 1999 Aug;82(2): 115-23

Hot peppers cause cancer
American Institute for Cancer Research, Food, Nutrition and the Prevention of Cancer: a global perspective, 1997
Surh YJ, et al. Food Chem Toxicol 1996 Mar;34(3): 313-6 and Mutat Res 1998 Jun 18:402(1-2): 259-67

Hot peppers help you breathe better
Ziment, I: Respiration 1991; 58(1):37-42
Carper, Jean. Food — Your Miracle Medicine, HarperCollins, 1993

This EatSmart column is reprinted from USAWEEKEND Magazine and is copyrighted by Jean Carper. It cannot be reprinted without permission from Jean Carper.

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