Today I listened to a podcast about hot new flavors and one of the top trends was spicy peppers, particularly interesting combinations like jalapeno mango or chili lime, yum! I was thrilled because hot peppers are one of the natural seasonings I feature in my newest book S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim. Rather than adding salt or sugar I flavor each meal with five types of natural seasonings: hot peppers (jalapenos, chili pepper, crushed red pepper, cayenne, etc.); herbs and spices (basil, garlic, rosemary, cinnamon, vanilla, ginger, etc.); vinegar (balsamic, champagne, brown rice or infused options like fig, pear, or pomegranate); tea (green, black, white, and oolong); and citrus juice or zest. In some recipes I combine several seasonings, like stir frys that use brown rice vinegar, a splash of fresh squeezed citrus juice, garlic, fresh grated ginger, and crushed red pepper. I also like to use hot peppers as a garnish, like in this picnic snack, which includes sliced red jalapeno on top of whole grain crackers spread with garlic basil pesto.
I had to build up my tolerance for peppers and spicy seasonings over the years, but I’m glad I did, because there are numerous benefits to including some heat in your diet. One study from Purdue University found that cayenne pepper helped curb appetite and up calorie burning. Over six weeks the researchers tracked 25 people, half liked spicy food and half did not. They consumed either no hot pepper, their preferred amount, or a standardized amount, which was about half a teaspoon. Both groups burned more calories when they consumed hot peppers, and those who were infrequent eaters of spicy food also felt less hungry after eating the spice and experienced fewer cravings for salty, fatty, and sweet foods.
And, in addition to a boost in metabolism and appetite regulation, peppers offer other important health benefits:
They help clear congestion
Capsaicin, the substance that gives peppers their heat, is similar to a compound found in many decongestants. If you add a dash of cayenne pepper to a cup of hot tea it will help stimulate the mucus membranes that line your nasal passages to drain so you can breathe easier.
They boost immunity
Peppers are an excellent source of both vitamin C, which supports immunity, as well as vitamin A, which helps to form mucous membranes, barriers that keep germs out of your body.
They’re heart healthy
Peppers have been shown to fight heart disease by lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol, increasing “good” HDL, and improving circulation.
They reduce ulcer risk
Many people think that hot peppers cause ulcers, but in fact the opposite is true. We now know that most ulcers are caused by bacteria, and hot peppers help to kill that bacteria.
You can add spicy cayenne to anything from a salad dressing to chocolate sauce. If you can handle a little more fire, the next step up would be chili peppers then habaneros. Jalapenos are considered to be milder that cayenne, but their degree of hotness can vary considerably—so watch out!
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.