Functional properties and toxicity

Peppers are well-known for their health benefits. Herbalists have long promoted peppers for their health-enhancing effects. These include clearing the lungs and sinuses, protecting the stomach by increasing the flow of digestive juices, triggering the brain to release endorphins (natural painkillers), making your mouth water, which helps to neutralize cavity-causing acids, and helping protect the body against cancer through anti-oxidant activity.3

8.5.1 Toxicity

The acute toxicity of capsaicin has been measured in several animal species. In mice, the LD50 values for CAPS depended on the mode of administration, ranging from 0.56 (intravenous) to 512 (dermal) mg kg-1 body weight. Death was due to respiratory paralysis.18 To reach the LD50 value for human oral administration, the average person would have to drink 1.5 quarts of Tabasco® sauce. The painfulness of the CAPS is a self-limiting factor in their role as a human food ingredient; you can only eat so much at one time. No death has ever been recorded due to CAPS-induced respiratory failure, and the investigators concluded that the acute toxicity of CAPS as a food additive in man was negligible.18 The effect of sub-chronic toxic doses has been examined in rats. Adult rats exhibited no noticeable behavioural or physiological changes when given sub-chronic doses of crude chilli extract by stomach tube for 60 days. Food consumption was significantly higher but body weight was lower than the control group after 60 days.19

8.5.2 Functional benefits

CAPS stimulates sensory neurons in the skin and mouth cavity, creating a sensation of warmth that increases to severe pain (type C nociceptive fibre pain) with higher doses. The neurons produce the neuropeptide Substance P (SP), which delivers the message of pain. Repeated exposure of a neuron to capsaicin depletes SP, reducing or eliminating the pain sensation in many people.20 Thus the use of CAPS in pain relief has two modes of action: the sensation of heat, which may help sore muscles and arthritic joints feel better, and the depletion of SP, which reduces the pain sensation in the exposed area. Peppers have been reported to contain an anticoagulant that helps prevent the blood clots that can cause heart attacks.3 Foods containing CAPS increase the thermic effects of food (TEF). The TEF is the slight increase in the body's metabolic rate after consumption of a meal. A meal containing foods with CAPS can increase the body's TEF up to 25% for three hours.3 The role of CAPS in triggering the brain to release endorphins (natural painkillers) is well-known. As more CAPS is consumed, the body releases more endorphins, causing one to feel a mild euphoria - a natural high! Regular consumption has only a slight desensitizing effect.

The Hungarian scientist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi won the 1937 Nobel Prize for isolating ascorbic acid, better known as vitamin C, from peppers. Peppers are also high in vitamin A, vitamin E, and potassium, and low in sodium. One hundred grams of fresh red chilli pepper has 240 mg of vitamin C (five times higher than an orange), 11,000 IU of vitamin A, and 0.7 mg of vitamin E. Vitamin C is sensitive to heat and drying but vitamin A is very stable, and paprika and dried chilli both contain relatively high amounts of this important nutrient.5

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