By Laura Ng
Other than their colorful array and crunchy taste, why do you think bell peppers are so popular worldwide?
Because they destroy free radicals. Or specifically, the army of antioxidants in bell peppers is the curse against free radicals.
What are free radicals and why should you fear them?
In order to appreciate the health benefits of bell pepper, you need to understand how free radicals come about.
A molecule becomes unstable and highly reactive when it loses an electron. Once this happens, its physical and chemical properties will permanently change. The deformed molecule now turns into a free radical.
Now, this free radical needs desperately to find another electron for pairing, hence it attacks and snatches the electron of another healthy molecule, turning it into yet another free radical.
It spells a lot of trouble if free radicals are within your body living cells. The rapid multiplying free radicals are so aggressive that they can tear apart the healthy cell membranes and destroy the DNA within, thereby killing the cells.
This process, known as oxidation, continues to inflict damages on the healthy molecules in a chain reaction, gradually causing your body tissues, vital organs, joints and immune systems to lose their functions. Over time, such damage will lead to cancers, heart disease, aging and other degenerative diseases.
Very often, when free radicals attack arterial walls, lipoproteins move into the injured area to assist in the healing.
However, healing gets complicated when oxidation occurs to low-density lipoproteins (LDL or commonly known as "bad" cholesterol) particles which may in turn lead to the growth of plaque on the arterial walls.
The plaque build-up gradually narrows the arteries, restricts blood flow through the arteries and eventually causes the arteries to harden (atherosclerosis). The hardened arteries are now vulnerable to complete blockage anytime and cutting off oxygen supply to your heart and brain.
Hence, atherosclerosis is a serious condition as it increases your risks to cardiovascular disease and stroke.
If antioxidants are readily available in the bloodstream, they can neutralize free radicals, making them harmless and prevent the detrimental reaction of free radicals, thereby protecting the arteries from injury (effected by free radicals attack) and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.
As more people are aware of the destructive actions of free radicals, we seek to find ways to stop free radicals. But free radical activities are all around us - from the air we breathe, the chemical additives and toxins in our food to the natural metabolism process.
So, strictly speaking, you cannot stop free radicals activity entirely but you can reduce it, by recruiting more antioxidants. We generally obtain our antioxidants from two broad categories — phytochemicals and carotenoids.
Over 900 phytochemicals are found ONLY in plant foods including vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. Phytochemicals are not a must-have nutrient but their bioactive compounds contain loads of health-promoting properties, other than the antioxidant characteristic. Over 600 carotenoids are found in fruits and vegetables that provide the bright colors to the fruits and vegetables.
Now let's examine in details how eating bell pepper can benefit your health.
With their attractive colors of green, red, yellow, orange and even purple, bell peppers come power-packed with antioxidants - beta-carotene (carotenoid), lutein and zeaxanthin (phytochemicals) and vitamin C.
Once you consume bell peppers, your body converts beta-carotene into retinol, one of the most usable and active forms of vitamin A. Together with vitamin C, vitamin A counteracts free radicals so as to minimize the damage caused to your arteries, nerves and tissues.
If you need to replenish vitamin C, consider eating red or yellow bell peppers as they provide 3 to 4 times more vitamin C than the daily value. In fact, a green bell pepper contains 1.5 times more vitamin C than an orange.
Furthermore, red bell peppers contain an additional carotenoid, lycopene that targets in preventing prostate cancer and cancers of the cervix, bladder and pancreas.
You need vitamin A to protect your vision, especially age-related macular degeneration that could lead to blindness. The phytochemicals, lutein and zeaxanthin, in red peppers also add more protection.
As you get older, you are prone to cataracts where your vision becomes obstructed by a permanent cloudiness in your eye's lens. At this stage, surgery is always inevitable to remove the cataracts.
Cataracts arise due to oxidative damage of cells in your eye's lens. Therefore, as a preventive measure, doctors would recommend a regular intake of antioxidants (specifically vitamin C, E and beta carotene) and minerals such as selenium, copper and zinc to strengthen the eyes' defense against free radicals' intrusion.
Bell peppers fit the bill as an excellent source for these nutrients.
Rheumatoid arthritis strikes when your body's infection-fighting immune cells malfunction and start attacking your joints. The inflammation doesn't only limit to joints, sometimes it can spread to other organs such as your skin, heart and lungs.
The real cause is still unknown but doctors often advise patients with rheumatoid arthritis or some other inflammation-associated conditions to consume more food rich in antioxidants, such as bell peppers.
According to Dr Robert Cathcart, M.D., who specializes in nutritional therapy, in Los Altos, California, since free radicals cause inflammation, you can make use of powerful antioxidants in bell peppers (vitamin C, E and beta-carotene) to mop up the free radicals.
That should alleviate the effect of rheumatoid arthritis.
Beware of homocysteine, a by-product created when your body breaks down the meat protein. This dangerous amino acid is an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease and should not be overlooked.
It damages blood vessels mainly in two ways:
Attacks the lining of artery walls.
Makes it difficult for blood to clot properly, thereby resulting in blood clots.
If the clotting occurs in the coronary artery for the heart, it causes heart attack. If it occurs in the carotid artery for the brain, the result is a stroke.
Hence, if your homocysteine level increases, you will be at a greater risk to heart attack and stroke. As simple as that.
In fact, a study of elderly people relating to Alzheimer's disease, published in the 2002 The New England Journal of Medicine, showed a direct link between the risks of Alzheimer's disease with homocysteine level.
To keep homocysteine level in check, you need enzymes to break down homocysteine back into methionine, another amino acid used by the body to build its own proteins or for excretion in the urine.
The vitamin B6 and folic acid (folate) in bell peppers are what enzymes need for the metabolism of methionine. All bell peppers are excellent sources of these two essential nutrients. Therefore, you can ensure adequate amounts of vitamin B6 and folate by eating bell peppers regularly.
Another risk factor for cardiovascular disease is, of course, the cholesterol level.
Besides supplying antioxidants to thwart free radicals attack, the soluble fiber in bell peppers actually binds with LDL cholesterol for excretion out of the body, thereby balancing cholesterol level.
The fiber also helps to move cancer-causing toxins faster through your gut and out of your body, thereby minimizing their chance of infecting your colon cells with cancer.
Can beta-cryptoxanthin found mostly in red bell peppers, corn, tangerines, pumpkins, oranges and peaches lower risk of lung cancer?
It seems to be so according to a study published in the September 2003 issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention that reviewed dietary and lifestyle data collected from 63,257 adults in Shanghai, China for eight years.
This study showed that the group consuming the most cryptoxanthin-rich foods reduced their cancer risk as much as 27%. Current smokers within the group were further analyzed and found that they had 37% lower risk of lung cancers, compared to smokers who ate the least of these vegetables.
However, a systematic review of the associations between carotenoids and lung cancer published in The American journal of clinical nutrition (Am J Clin Nutr) Aug 2008 issue, said that it was not clear that beta carotenoids was the main cause for lowering lung cancer risk.
Faced with this controversial review, we shall wait for more tests to verify this fact. Nevertheless, as a carotenoid, beta-cryptoxanthin still has its antioxidant benefits.
Even Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) uses bell peppers as a natural treatment for certain medical conditions relating to digestive issues and blood circulation such as indigestion, loss of appetite, swelling, frostbite and food stagnation.
In TCM terms, it can warm the spleen and stomach, control nausea and vomiting, and clear away phlegm and toxic materials.
As their names imply, they generally come in bell shapes with three to four lobes and glossy exteriors.
Depending on the stage of ripeness and variety, their colors ranges from orange, yellow, red, purple, brown, black, ivory or green and so do their sweetness.
You cannot differentiate the variety of sweet bell peppers when they are still young because most start out as green. As they ripen, they will change color.
But green bell peppers remain green throughout the ripening process. Thus, it can be pretty challenging for you to differentiate the other bell peppers from the green variety before they ripen.
Bell peppers originate from Mexico, Central and South America.
They come from the same plant, specifically Capsicum annuum and belong to the nightshade family whose members include potatoes, tomatoes and eggplants.
Red, yellow and orange bell peppers have a sweet and almost fruity flavor. Green and purple ones are slightly bitter. Its color may not be appetizing but black bell pepper actually tastes sweet.
Chocolate brown bell pepper adds a sweet flavor with just a hint of spiciness. Ivory bell peppers give sweet taste too but they must be harvested before they slowly turn from peach, orange to finally red peppers.
Eaten raw in salads, they add color and crunch to the dishes that stimulate both your appetite and taste buds. You can even eat them on their own as snacks. Vegetarians / vegans or dieters simply love them.
They are versatile in many food combinations - you can barbecue, bake, steam, stir-fry them with any vegetables, nuts, seeds or legumes. Or you can add them to fruit juices and smoothies.
Peppers are not seasonal fruits, meaning you can find them in supermarkets any day during the year.
The best are those with well-shaped, firm and glossy appearance and also feel heavy for their sizes. The stems should be fresh and green.
Watch out for unhealthy peppers with soft or wrinkled areas, cracks, slashes or black spots.
I suggest that you wrap the peppers in paper bags or paper towels, and store them in the fridge to help retain their freshness.
All bell peppers can store up to 5 days under cold temperature but generally, green peppers can last a little longer than the red and yellow ones.
Wash the bell peppers just before using. Cut a pepper vertically starting from the stem.
Remove the stem, seeds and interior membranes before slicing it into the shapes and sizes you want.
Alternatively, you can fill the hollow of bell peppers with your favorite toppings for baking or steaming.
Bell peppers are such wonderful vegetables that you should include them in your daily diet.
Plus, you can find them in markets all year round, meaning you get to enjoy their delightful crispness and nutritional goodness whenever you want.
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