Capsaicin is the active ingredient responsible for the spiciness of peppers. The more capsaicin it contains, the hotter it is. It is in all members of the capsicum family (peppers) and is found in abundance in jalapeno, cayenne and chilli peppers. Capsaicin has no calories but numerous health benefits. Using spices is a great way of adding taste and interest to food without resorting to extra sugar, salt or fat.
Capsaicin is anti-inflammatory and helps prevent the activation of the brain’s pain transmitters so can reduce both actual inflammation and the sensation of pain and has been shown to help reduce swelling in people with arthritis. It may also be helpful in improving symptoms of psoriasis. It can be used topically in a cream or in food or as a supplement, but if you are on certain medicines you will need to check before taking it as a supplement as there are some interactions which are contraindicated.
It is also very helpful for weight loss. Capsaicin is a thermogenic agent, which means it increases metabolic activity. This, in turn, helps burn calories and fat. Plus, it reduces the production of ghrelin, the hormone responsible for triggering hunger so it may help you feel fuller for longer.
It is helpful for heart health as can lower blood pressure by relaxing blood vessels, improving circulation and can reduce the risk of blood clots by lowering the concentration of fibrin an insoluble protein that plays a role in clot formation. It is a powerful antioxidant and appears to be protective against some cancers, particularly prostate and breast cancer. It is also supportive of digestive health, by boosting the body’s defence against infections, protecting the mucosal lining of the gut and helping with digestion.
Capsaicin may also reduce your risk of stomach ulcers by inhibiting acid secretion and promoting mucous. To help fight stomach infections, simply mix a pinch of cayenne pepper powder in a glass of water and drink it once a day. You can continue for a few days.
It is easy to include capsaicin in your diet. You can add chopped cayenne peppers or chillies to stir-fry dishes, soups, and stews. You can also sprinkle ground cayenne pepper on savoury breakfast dishes and salads.
Red Lentil, Chickpea and Chilli Soup (serves 4)
2 tsp cumin seeds
Large pinch chilli flakes
1 tbsp olive oil
1 red onion, chopped
140g red split lentils
850ml vegetable stock or water
400g can tomatoes, whole or chopped
200g carton chickpeas or ½ a can, rinsed and drained (freeze leftovers)
Small bunch coriander, roughly chopped (save a few leaves, to serve)
4 tbsp 0% Greek yogurt, to serve
Heat a large saucepan and dry-fry the cumin seeds and chilli flakes for 1 min, or until they start to jump around the pan and release their aromas. Add the oil and onion and cook for 5 mins. Stir in the lentils, stock and tomatoes, then bring to the boil. Simmer for 15 mins until the lentils have softened.Whizz the soup with a stick blender or in a food processor until it is a rough purée, pour back into the pan and add the chickpeas. Heat gently, season well and stir in the coriander. Finish with a dollop of yogurt and coriander leaves.