I am back in Mexico City and have been thinking about the perfect Mexican ingredient to feature this week. As I strolled through the market yesterday, it hit me; the perfect Mexican ingredient to feature is not a fruit or vegetable, but a SPICE. Duh, what is Mexican food without some PICANTE (spicy) flavors? And now thinking back I realize that they really do put hot spices on everything here. This weekend at a friend’s house in Acapulco, they served coconut pieces with hot sauce, accompanied by some peanuts (with two kinds of hot sauce on it), followed by fruit with chill powder! And no meat dish or quesadilla is served without some chipotle sauce or spicy salsa! Good thing I like it hot, a taste that has developed over the years.
I was first introduced to hot sauce in college, when a good friend convinced me that the dining hall food would taste much better with hot sauce poured all over it. True. But it went further than that to even putting hot sauce on scooped out bagels- a little disturbing looking back. But there began my love for spicy foods that is so nicely satisfied in Mexico. So if you are also a SPICY fan, good news: you’re doing your body well!
Scientists have isolated the compound capsaicin, found in chile peppers, which is responsible for the pungent “hot” taste as well as the nutritional benefits. This compound is found in all hot peppers from jalapeño and chipotles to anchos, serranos, and habaneras. The spicier the pepper, the more capsaicin (hence the habanero, serrano, and jalapeno take the cake, in order from most to least spicy)
Why Have You Done a Good Thing?
Capsaicin and chili peppers have been linked to a number of health benefits over the years, ranging from weight loss and improved circulation to preventing cancer and improving sleep. Here at Secret Ingredient we like to trust, but verify, so lets see what the science says…
Arthritis→ Capsaicin fights inflammation and arthritis is an inflammation-derived disease, makes sense. A 2010 study in Thailand’s Journal of the Medical Association found that patients with knee osteoarthritis treated with capsaicin rather than placebo experienced significantly better outcomes in terms of pain control and disease depth.
Anti-Cancerous→ Preliminary research does support capsaicin as killing cancerous cells, but for now, the effect is seen only in the lab…so stay tuned.
Analgesic→ the bursting heat from the peppers can actually stop nerves from transmitting pain signals to the brain, wow. The Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that our spicy star was helpful in alleviating mouth pains related to cancer treatments when capsaicin was consumed as a sucking candy. Plus- other studies have found this crazy chile compound to be associated with better pain control when applied to the skin for localized pain or taken orally post-operatively.
Weight loss→ Capsaicin revs up metabolism, which makes the body burn calories faster. In addition, people who consume spicy foods tend to eat smaller portion sizes (I mean, how much of a very spicy dish can we eat at a time?), which leads to less caloric intake and weight loss. And oh, when Nelly said, “it’s getting hot in here…” he may have been having a chili pepper-filled meal since capsaicin raises body temperature, making you sweat, which can lead to weight loss and possibly the other half of that song line. A 2010 study in Nutrition & Metabolism showed increased energy expenditure (aka- burning calories!) with capsaicin intake.
Anti-bacterial→ While people once believed that eating spicy foods could give you ulcers, train of though has changed and recent research supports that chili pepper compounds seem to aim their spice at unwanted bacteria in the stomach, especially H. Pylori (a bacteria with potential to cause stomach ulcers)
Hypertension→ 2010 study from Science Times shows lowers cholesterol in hypertensive rats and further points out that countries with higher rates of dietary capsaicin have lower rates of hypertension (high blood pressure) and vise versa.
Just to be clear… spicy foods are great for their flavoring ability and for their health benefits, but they should be consumed in moderation to prevent heartburn or indigestion. If you do feel these symptoms than the spice factor may not be for you- feel it out! But not to be alarmed, because with the extreme hotness of these foods, it would be difficult to consume a large amount from food alone, so any amount you are consuming on a daily basis is likely in moderation!
One more thing, if you are like me in college and love to douse things in hot sauce- be careful. Sodium contents of most hot sauces are pretty high, so try using fresh chili peppers or limit hot sauce consumption to 1-2 teaspoons per day so as not to over-do the recommended sodium intake of less than 2400mg or 2.4g per day (1 tsp hot sauce averages over 120mg or 5% of daily sodium, which may not seem like so much, but can definitely add up very quickly!
So...lets break it down (sodium per 1 tsp serving size of original flavors):
Frank's Red Hot- 200mg
Texas Pete- 120mg
Winner is Cholula, and I personally think it tastes the BEST!
What if I over-do it?
Ah yes…we all know that dreadful burning feeling when we bite off more than we can chew (literally). I have seen first hand what this can do to a person, mainly talking about my father, a 65-year-old man sticking his tongue into a glass of ice water at a fancy restaurant after accidentally consuming an entire jalapeño pepper by mistake. Ouch. So…here is the trick: Drink fat-free or one-percent milk! The main protein in milk is casein, which can alleviate the part of the pepper that makes your mouth and throat feel like it may explode. So next time this happens to you (especially in public) you can ask for a glass of milk rather than sticking your tongue into someone’s water glass.
Easy ways to incorporate spicy foods into your diet:
1. Make guacamole and/or salsa and add a jalapeño pepper (make sure to keep in some of the seeds: since the seeds are the true source of the pepper's heat, the more seeds you use, the spicier it will be, and the more capsaicin it will have)
2. Make “Jicima Fries” by slicing a jicima (large white root vegetable) into long strips and mixing them with lime juice and chili powder
3. Next time you are making chicken, try marinating it in a chipotle and soy sauce mixture, and then grill it in a pan.
4. Do like the Mexicans: serve your mango, papaya, pears (and any other fruit you can find) with chili powder. Next time you have friends over for cocktails, add some hot chili sauces to the peanut bowl.
5. Chipotle peppers (which are derived from Jalapeños) have a wonderful smoky and flavorful taste, not un-similar to that of bacon (but minus the health risks of saturated fat). So, add chipotle peppers or dried chipotle powder to any savory dish, from bean chilis and meat stews, to grain salads and sauteed greens.