Pepper/chilli is a shrub that belongs to the Solanaceae family and genus Capsicum. This shrub produces fruits whose colour varies from green, yellow to red, depending on the maturity level and the species.
The two major domesticated genera of capsicum in East Africa are C. annum (Long cayenne chilli) and C. frutescens (African bird’s eye chilli).
These two varieties are grown majorly for their hot sensory attributes (pungency) in food, extraction of essential oil and pigment.
Pepper is used as fresh vegetable, dried whole fruits, milled powder, an essential oil (capsaicin) extract or traditionally fermented condiment.
Capsicum contains different phytochemicals, vitamins (A, C, E and all the B complex vitamins) and minerals (iron, phosphorous and calcium).
Some of these compounds are natural antioxidants (carotenoids, ascorbic acid, flavonoids and polyphenols) that quench free radicals in the body when pepper is consumed.
Capsaicin is the chemical compound responsible for the pungency of pepper and also accounts for its medicinal properties.
Lycopene in red pepper is believed to possess anticancer properties, reducing risks of prostate cancer. Consumption of pepper also reduces risks of cardiovascular diseases, asthma, sore throat, diabetes, stomachaches, migraine, flatulence, muscle tension, psoriasis, heart diseases and headache.
The following are some ailments whose risks are reduced by consumption of pepper:
Obesity has been identified as a predisposing factor to some diseases such as coronary heart disease, hypertension, type II diabetes and cancer.
Inclusion of capsaicin in the human diet drops ad libitum food consumption, influencing satiety and hunger by balancing energy either positively or negatively.
Capsaicin lowers expression of adipocyte differentiation-related proteins, a process that reduces packing of adipose tissues under the skin.
In glucose tolerance cases, capsaicin intake has been shown to lower glucose and increase insulin. Intake of pepper with capsaicin concentration of 0.01-0.02 per cent in a diet for six weeks can increase insulin levels.
These mechanisms can be used to explain weight regulation in diabetic patients by consuming pepper.
Capsaicin inhibits platelet aggregation by changing their membrane fluidity. This process explains the antioxidant properties of capsaicin, hence lowering risks of cardiovascular diseases such as atherosclerosis and coronary heart diseases.
Pepper contains carotenoid, flavonoids, phenolic acids and ascorbic acid, compounds that are able to scavenge harmful free reactive oxygen, singlet molecular oxygen, peroxyl radicals and reactive nitrogen. This process reduces risks of tumour development in cells and tissues.
Pepper extracts have been used to inhibit growth of leukaemia and human colorectal adenocarcinoma cells. Capsaicin has been seen to cause apoptosis of different cancer cells of the liver, pancreas, lungs, endothelium, colon, prostate, bladder, oesophagus and the skin by attacking several signalling pathways and cancer-related genes at different stages of tumour development.
Can an ulcerated person take chilli? Ingestion of pepper triggers secretion of saliva, which is an alkaline fluid from the salivary glands, mucus from the mucus membrane, secretion of bicarbonate and gastric mucosal blood.
This process slows down acid production, thus preventing and healing ulcers. Pepper extracts fight gastric and duodenal pathogens such as H. pylori, which cause gastric and duodenal ulcers as well as gastric cancer.
Improves immune system
Beta-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A in cayenne pepper protects the nasal passages, lungs and urinary tract against invading disease-causing pathogens by development of a healthy mucous membrane lining.
Today several pain relief creams, patches and ointments made from pepper extracts are available on the market. These analgesics vary from low-concentration creams, lotions and patches having capsaicin concentration range of 0.025 per cent-0.1 per cent wt/wt and high concentration patch containing capsaicin concentration of 8 per cent wt/wt basis.
Different capsaicin concentrations have been used in different pain relieving cases.
Circulatory system and high blood pressure
Chilli extracts have the ability to lower cholesterol, dissolve fibrin (which causes formation of blood clots), lower internal haemorrhage, reduce risks of varicose vein, clean low density lipoproteins and bad triglycerides from the arteries.
It has been pointed out that consumption of spices especially long cayenne pepper for six to seven days leads to 14 per cent relative risk decrease in mortality.
Therefore, consume more fresh pepper just like fresh vegetables as a chemo-preventive remedy to mortality and morbidity caused by lifestyle ailments.
Were is based at the Department of Dairy, Food Science and Technology, Egerton University.