Looking to add a little spice to your life -- or your diet? Cayenne pepper may be just what the doctor ordered. This popular red pepper adds versatile flavor to your meals and is chock-full of health benefits to boot.
"Cayenne peppers are a great addition to a healthy diet," says registered dietitian Alexis Supan, RD. Here's why cayenne pepper deserves a spot in your kitchen cabinet - and how to add it to your dining routine.
What is cayenne pepper?
Cayenne peppers are long, skinny peppers with a glossy, cherry-red hue. Officially known as Capsicum annum, these pungent peppers are members of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, along with their distant cousins, potatoes, eggplants and tomatoes. Cayenne peppers are thought to have originated in South America, but their easygoing spice has made them a popular addition to cuisines around the world.
Cayenne peppers have a hot-but-not-too-hot level of kick. If you're a spicy food fan, you might be familiar with the Scoville scale. This scale measures the heat of a chili pepper, from unspicy bell peppers at one end to burn-your-face-off ghost peppers and Carolina reapers at the other.
A jalapeño pepper packs about 5,000 Scoville Heat Units, while a cayenne pepper is more like 30,000 to 50,000. "Cayenne peppers are quite a bit hotter than a jalapeño," Supan says. "Most people wouldn't go around snacking on raw cayenne peppers."
Luckily, you can reap the many benefits of cayenne peppers without eating them like apples. Whether you cook with fresh peppers or sprinkle dried and powdered cayenne pepper into your meals, there are good reasons to embrace this special spice.
Is cayenne pepper healthy?
Like most colorful produce, cayenne peppers are a good source of nutrients. In particular, they are rich in:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin K
"If you can get your hands on fresh cayenne peppers, you'll get a lot more vitamins. One fresh pepper has 72% of the recommended daily amount of vitamin C and 50% of vitamin A," Supan says.
The powdered form doesn't contain quite as many vitamins as the fresh peppers do. Still, dried cayenne powder is a good source of vitamin A, she adds. "In just one teaspoon, you'll get 15% of your daily vitamin A."
And vitamin A is an essential nutrient. It plays an important role in:
- Immune system health
- Proper function of the heart, lungs, kidneys and other organs.
Cayenne pepper benefits
The health benefits of cayenne peppers go well beyond their vitamin content. Many of their benefits come from capsaicin, the natural compound that gives all peppers their spicy kick.
How, exactly, are cayenne peppers good for your health? Let us count the good things that cayenne can do.
1. Provides beneficial plant compounds
"Cayenne peppers are fantastic sources of antioxidants and other plant compounds that protect our cells and promote health," says Supan. Antioxidants, along with related compounds like flavonoids and carotenoids, are compounds naturally found in plants.
These compounds protect our cells against damage from harmful substances in the environment. "They fight the processes that age our cells to help keep our cells young," Supan explains.
A diet rich in antioxidants can help ward off diseases, including heart disease and certain types of cancers. And cayenne peppers are a particularly good source of these superstar compounds. In one study, researchers compared antioxidant levels in 20 different hot peppers. Cayenne peppers came out on top.
2. Protects your heart
Cayenne peppers can protect heart health in several ways. There's evidence, for instance, that capsaicin can protect against inflammation in your body. Inflammation plays a role in many different diseases, including heart disease. "Cayenne peppers can keep blood vessels healthy and may help lower blood pressure," Supan adds.
Researchers found that people who regularly ate chili peppers were 13% less likely to die than people who avoided spicy fare. The reason? Spice lovers had a lower risk of heart-related diseases like heart attacks and strokes.
What's more, researchers found that when people season their meals with cayenne pepper, they're less likely to reach for the saltshaker. "Salt isn't so good for heart health, especially in people with high blood pressure," Supan says. "Increasing the amount of cayenne pepper you eat might help you cut back on salt."
3. Improves digestion
Lots of people associate spicy foods with heartburn or an upset stomach. But for many people, spice can have the opposite effect. "Cayenne pepper is really helpful for digestion," Supan explains. "It increases gastric juices and enzyme production in the stomach, which helps us break down food."
There's also evidence that spicy foods like cayenne peppers can boost the good bacteria in your gut. The microbiome is a community of bacteria in your gut that are important for a healthy immune system. Capsaicin may help promote a healthy microbiome.
Of course, spicy fare can trigger heartburn in some people. If cayenne pepper doesn't agree with you, don't force it. "If your body doesn't like it, you'll know," she says.
4. Maintain a healthy weight
Cayenne peppers and other capsaicin-containing spicy foods may help with weight loss. Spicy foods can rev up the metabolism a bit, helping burn calories. It can also help you feel fuller after eating.
"The effect isn't enough to overcome an unhealthy diet," Supan warns, "but as part of a nutritious eating plan, spicy foods may suppress appetite and help with weight loss."
What's more, a spicy, flavorful diet tends to be more satisfying. And when you're satisfied, you're less likely to reach for not-so-healthy foods and snacks. "People who use strong flavors and add a lot of spices like cayenne are often happier with their diets," Supan says. "People who enjoy these flavorful herbs and spices typically eat well overall."
5. Ease pain and clear congestion
Some evidence suggests that spicy peppers are good for an achy (or stuffy) head. "When you're stuffed up, spicy foods can help clear the congestion," Supan says. And if your head is pounding, spicy chili or tacos may help. "Cayenne peppers have also been shown to help relieve headaches," she says.
Capsaicin is also used in topical form to treat pain. Creams made from the potent spice can be rubbed on your skin to treat arthritis pain.
How to use cayenne pepper
Fresh or powdered, cayenne pepper is a super addition to your diet, Supan says. "One of the great things about cayenne is that, unlike a lot of spices, it seems to blend with every type of cuisine," she says. "It's used in dishes from just about every country in the world."
That makes it a great choice for spice novices who are just dipping their toe into the world of hot peppers. Wondering where to start? Grab a pinch and get creative, Supan says. "You can sprinkle a bit of the powdered spice into just about any food. Just experiment until you find the balance you like best."
Once you've developed a taste for the punchy pepper, there are lots of creative ways to use it.
- Mexican hot chocolate: Stir powdered cayenne into hot cocoa for a sweet-and-spicy kick that will warm you up on the coldest of days.
- Boost your coffee: Supan likes to sprinkle just a bit of the spice into her coffee for a kicky pick-me-up.
- Grab a pan: If you're trying fresh cayenne peppers for the first time, sauteing is the most user-friendly way to prepare them, Supan says. "Chop them up, sauté them and add them to a stir fry," she suggests.
- Go brave with raw peppers: Raw, fresh cayenne peppers pack the most punch. If you want to fully embrace their spicy power, try chopping them into small pieces and adding them to homemade salsa. They also make a great addition to meat marinades.
One word of warning: As your palate adjusts to cayenne peppers, you might find you like your foods hotter and hotter. But with all the potential health benefits of a spicy diet, that's a very good thing indeed.