Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Spotlight Food - Bell Peppers...
Bell Peppers - Along with Onions, Bell Peppers are probably the most commonly consumed vegetable in my home. I love their sweet and tangy flavor, love their crunch when raw, and love how the seem to so perfectly compliment every dish I toss them into. Red peppers have always been my bell pepper of choice, originally for their flavor but now also for their amazing healthful benefits. However Orange and Yellow bell peppers come as a close second, and though Green Bell Peppers aren’t my favorite I do enjoy them as well, particularly in salsa’s, chilies, pasta sauces, and creole rice dishes. As with onions there is a lot of interesting information available about this wonderful fruit/vegetable that I’m happy to share with you.
Bell Peppers, (Capsicum annuum) commonly known as Sweet Peppers, or Capsicum are Native to Mexico, Central America and Northern South America. However in 1493 Pepper seeds were brought back to Spain and from there their cultivation spread across Europe, Africa, and Asia. Despite their now widespread cultivation Mexico still remains one of the worlds largest pepper producers.
You might not know this, but the Bell Pepper was given it’s name by Christopher Columbus upon his return to Europe. It was this name he chose to bequeath his latest find because at that time in European history the peppercorn (From an entirely unrelated plant native to India) was considered to be all the rage and was a revered condiment. The name pepper was then subsequently applied to anything with either a hot or pungent flavor. Naming the capsicum after such a famed ingredient I’m sure also went a long way in generating interest and demand for the newly arrived fruit/vegetable.
Two other interesting factoids about the bell pepper is that botanically speaking peppers are fruits and yet are always considered as vegetables in culinary contexts. The bell pepper while a capsicum is also the only capsicum species to not produce capsaicin; a lipophilic chemical that’s responsible for causing that strong burning sensation whenever it comes into contact with the mucus membranes. The lack of capsaicin apparently comes from a recessive form of a gene that eliminates capsaicin (the ‘hot’ taste) that is so characteristic of the rest of the capsicum family.
Bell Peppers come in different colors, and with slightly different flavor profiles, ranging from slightly bitter to super sweet. They can range from green, red, orange, yellow, and far less commonly white, purple and rainbow. (The In-between stages of ripening) depending on the specific cultivator and at what time in the ripening process the peppers were harvested. Green peppers interestingly, are simply the fruit in it’s unripened stage. It’s because of this that green peppers are less nutrient dense then the red pepper variety, which have the highest nutrient content. One cup of raw red pepper contains over 100% of your Daily Value of Vitamin C and Vitamin A, and is also a good source of vitamin B6. 1 large red bell pepper contains 3 times as much vitamin C as an orange!
*** Just an interesting aside here but Paprika (a favorite seasoning of mine) whose name holds it’s roots in the word pepper; is made by grinding dried capsicum’s. Most commonly the bell pepper and/or the chili pepper. ***
Health-wise Bell Peppers offer a wide range of nutrients and healthful benefits. Have you ever heard the phrase’s "Eat by color" or "Eat all the colors of the rainbow"? I’m sure you have, and the reason you may hear it so often and with such emphasis is because it’s those same phytonutrients that give fruits and vegetables their luscious color that also helps to protect us against Free Radicals.
Peppers are great sources of phytonutrients, and are full of antioxidant protection. They are rich in both vitamin C and A, two powerful antioxidants and important nutrients that work together to combat free radicals. Free radicals incase you haven’t heard are key factors when it comes to our declining health. From building up cholesterol in our arteries which leads to heart disease, nerve and blood vessel damage seen in diabetes, cataracts, joint damage seen in arthritis, and the wheezing and airway tightening associated with asthma, free radicals can cause our bodies a boatload of damage in a small amount of time. It’s when these free radicals have uncontrolled reign to do as they please in our bodies that we become ill, and develop disease.
Peppers also contain vitamin B6 and folate which are both very important for reducing homocysteine in the body. High levels of homocysteine have been shown to cause damage to blood vessels and are associated with a largely increased risk of heart attack and stroke. In addition to this bell peppers also contain fiber which can help lower cholesterol levels, a major risk factor in heart attack and stroke.
Red peppers are also one of the few foods that contain lycopene, a carotenoid whose consumption - or lack there of - has been linked with prostate cancer, as well as cervical, bladder and pancreatic cancer. Studies suggest that individuals whose diets are lowest in lycopene rich foods are at a greater risk for developing these types of cancers.
Consumption of fiber, vitamin c, folic acid, and beta-carotene, which are all found in bell peppers have also been associated with a significantly lowering one’s risk of colon cancer.
Consuming foods rich in beta-cryptoxanthin an orange-red carotenoid found in highest amounts in red peppers, pumpkin, corn, papaya, tangerines, oranges, and peaches may significantly lower one’s risk of developing lung cancer. According to a study published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, which reviewed dietary and lifestyle data collected from over 60,000 adults in Shanghai, China and found that those eating diets highest in cryptoxanthin rich foods had a 27% reduced risk of lung cancer.
Research conducted at Kansas State University that focused on the relationship between vitamin A, lung inflamation and emphysema has also uncovered some very interesting things. It was discovered that a common carcinogen in cigarette smoke, benzopyrene, induces vitamin A deficiency. The interesting thing is that research conducted by Richard Baybutt associate professor of nutrition at Kansas State, found that laboratory animals fed a diet deficient in vitamin A developed emphysema, but that eating a diet rich in vitamin A could combat this effect, reducing ones risk. Baybutt believes that vitamin A’s protective effects could explain why some smokers develop emphysema while others do not.
Vitamin C rich foods like peppers have also been shown to provide protection against rheumatoid arthritis. The Annals of the Rheumatic Disease published the findings of a study conducted on more then 20,000 individuals who kept diet diaries and were arthritis-free at the beginning of the study. After compiling all the data, and seeing who had remained arthritis-free in the fallow up period, it was shown that those subjects who consumed the lowest amounts of vitamin C rich food were three times more likely to develop arthritis then those who ate a diet rich in vitamin C.
*** Note - Keep in mind that the healthful benefits from Vitamin C come from the Vitamin C consumed within the foods that we eat. As Supplemented Vitamin C in pill form can actually make osteoarthritis worse.***
Like most vegetables bell peppers can be eaten cooked or raw. You can enjoy them sliced thin and dipped into humus, Tzatziki, or your favorite dip or dressing. You can slice or chop them and enjoy them in any kind of salad from a traditional green salad, to a Greek salad, to a Middle Eastern couscous or bulgur salad. You can enjoy them cooked in soups, chilies, and as a main filling for fajitas. You can saute them in a stir-fry, simmer them in a curry, grill them, roast them, put them in casseroles, pasta dishes, pasta sauces, salsa, gumbo, jambalaya, and fried rice . These sweet crisp treats are very versatile and can be eaten in an almost endless amount of ways. I know I eat them virtually every day and I toss them into anything regardless of whether or not my recipe requires them. I’m never shy about adding more peppers to a dish either. Both my husband and I can never seem to get enough, my husband in fact craves them! So don’t be afraid to get creative and as always enjoy!
Happy and Healthy Eating to you! And don’t forget to load up on those peppers for optimal health!