Eating the hottest chili peppers until you scream, puke and then hyperventilate while wishing the sweet release of death would come now, right this second, please, has become a popular YouTube challenge. But while this might seem both reckless and idiotic (which, yeah), one thing that might help these daredevils rest easier while their tongues burn off is knowing that chili peppers are actually super-duper healthy. Unless you’re these girls, I mean:
To help everyone (especially the people torturing themselves for views on YouTube) make better choices when it comes to hot foods, I asked nutritionist David Friedman, author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction, to help me rank popular kinds of chili peppers by how good they are for you — from ultra healthy to “burn-a-hole-in-your-soul.”
First, though, Friedman says you can usually tell how healthy a chili pepper is depending on its color. “Peppers come in an array of colors ranging from red, green, yellow, orange and purple,” he explains. “Generally, red peppers pack the most nutrition, because they’ve been on the vine the longest. Green peppers are harvested earlier before they have a chance to turn yellow, orange and then red. Compared to green bell peppers, the red ones have almost 12 times more beta-carotene [which has been linked to a decrease in the risk of lung and breast cancer] and twice as much vitamin C. Meanwhile, purple peppers contain more anthocyanins, which are antioxidants that can help fight free-radical damage in the body.”
There’s also evidence that capsaicin — the compound behind the heat produced by these peppers — has numerous health benefits. “The hotter varieties of peppers contain high levels of capsaicin, which has been shown to boost metabolism, suppress appetite and offer anti-inflammatory properties,” says Friedman, pointing to one Harvard study that shows consuming spicy foods, usually chili peppers, at least once or twice a week can reduce your mortality risk by 10 percent. He also mentions another 23-year-long study showing that people who eat even small amounts of chili peppers are 13 percent less likely to die from a heart attack or stroke than those who eat none at all.
We also can’t talk about chili peppers without mentioning the Scoville scale, which is essentially a measurement of how hot chili peppers and other spicy foods are. I’m not going to talk too much about this, since we’re ranking these peppers by how healthy they are, not how spicy they are, but if you want to know more about the Scoville scale and where the peppers on this list might land, head over to this link.
With that out of the way, let’s rank some chilis!
1) Scotch Bonnet (Hot as Hell): “That runny nose you get while scarfing down a red hot chili pepper is because your mucus membranes are loosening up, which breaks down bacteria and viruses,” Friedman explains. “Eating hot peppers also makes you sweat, a sign that your metabolism is revving up, which explains why peppers can help aid in weight loss. What causes this reaction is a substance called capsaicin, which gives peppers their intense heat. Scotch bonnet peppers come in four colors: Red, orange, yellow and green. When it comes to health benefits, the redder the better.”
Compared to other peppers, scotch bonnets are particularly high in vitamins and minerals. “Scotch bonnets are an excellent source of phytochemicals, vitamin A, vitamin C and magnesium,” says Friedman (phytochemicals prevent cancer, vitamin A prevents heart disease and magnesium modulates blood pressure). “They’re also a good source of immune-boosting flavonoids like beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin and cryptoxanthin.”
Scotch bonnets are also especially hot, which means they contain loads of healthy capsaicin. “While most people may have a stressful look on their faces after they bite into a scotch bonnet, it may actually help lower their stress levels,” Friedman says. “These peppers contain the ‘stress-fighting’ B-complex group of vitamins, such as niacin, pyridoxine, riboflavin and thiamine. These peppers may also indirectly relieve anxiety symptoms with their ability to increase endorphins in your brain: Researchers at the American Society of Pharmacology found that the capsaicin in Scotch bonnet peppers stimulates the production of endorphins, hormones responsible for blocking pain signals and causing a euphoric sensation.”
Another benefit of Scotch bonnets is their ability to keep your heart pumping strong. “Scotch bonnets may also play a role in decreasing hardening in the arteries, obesity, high blood pressure and stroke risk,” says Friedman. “These hot peppers may have anti-cancer properties, too: A study by the American Association for Cancer Research found that capsaicin may be able to kill prostate cancer cells, and a study from the University of Nottingham found that capsaicin might destroy lung cancer cells.”
It might sound counterintuitive considering the heat, but Scotch bonnets could also keep your stomach healthy. “Scotch bonnets are often used as a food preservative because of their antifungal and antibacterial effects,” explains Friedman. “Research shows these same attributes may also protect humans from these pathogens, so these hot peppers can minimize the effect of food-borne pathogens, such as listeria, salmonella and other strains of harmful bacteria and fungi.”
2) Serrano (Pretty Hot): “While the orange has long held the reputation for providing the most vitamin C, serrano peppers win by a landslide: One cup contains 190 milligrams (317 percent of the daily recommended value), while one large Florida orange offers 90 milligrams,” Friedman says. “Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that can protect cells in the body from harmful molecules called free radicals. When free radicals accumulate, they can create oxidative stress, which has been linked to many chronic diseases.”
“Serranos are also a great source of vitamin A, calcium and iron,” says Friedman (calcium helps protect the bones from deterioration, and iron supports oxygen-carrying red blood cells). “The capsaicin in these peppers inhibits substance P, a neuropeptide associated with inflammatory processes and pain, which means serrano peppers have amazing pain-relieving properties that can help with back pain, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. Serranos may also improve vascular and metabolic health.”
Similar to Scotch bonnets, serranos may also be good for your stomach. “A common belief is that hot peppers can cause or aggravate stomach ulcers, but research shows this to be false,” Friedman explains. “They also help reduce stomach damage caused by the overuse of NSAID pain relievers [like Aspirin and ibuprofen] and alcohol, potentially preventing the formation of ulcers. The capsaicin in serranos also has strong anti-cancer properties and is capable of killing over 40 types of cancer cells without harming normal cells.”
3) Habanero (Very, Very Hot) : “These little babies can pack up to 500,000 Scoville units, compared to jalapeños, which only come to 15,000 units — habaneros aren’t for the weak-hearted,” Friedman warns. “They achieve this high heat rating thanks to their abundant capsaicin content, which according to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, can be used as a treatment for a variety of medical disorders.”
Similar to Scotch bonnets, habaneros also boast high amounts of those stress-relieving B-complex vitamins. “These vitamins also help improve energy levels and are essential for the health of our nervous system and brain,” Friedman explains. “Research shows habaneros can help combat prostate cancer: A study performed by the Department of Hematology/Oncology at Cedars Sinai Medical Center shows that habanero peppers can help slow the growth and proliferation of human prostate cancer cells.”
“If you’re battling your weight, try adding habanero peppers to your diet,” Friedman continues. “According to the Journal of Proteome Research, habaneros create thermogenesis, the process in which the body raises its temperature or energy output. This increases the body’s metabolism, which forces fat cells to be used as energy.”
Habaneros can also fend off high blood pressure. “A six-week study showed that capsaicinoids found in habaneros reduced total cholesterol and bad cholesterol levels without reducing levels of good cholesterol,” Friedman says. “So while eating a habanero might make you sweat and increase your heart rate, it may also actually help lower your blood pressure.”
4) Cayenne (Burns a Little): “Cayennes have been used for thousands of years to help treat many health problems,” says Friedman. “They contain a full spectrum of nutrients, including potassium, niacin, riboflavin, iron, zinc, copper, magnesium, manganese and selenium.” Potassium helps control blood pressure, zinc reinforces the immune system, copper improves energy production, manganese promotes healthy skin and bones and selenium protects the body from free radicals.
Similar to habaneros, cayennes also boast the same fat-burning quality. “Research shows people who eat red cayennes burn more calories than those that don’t,” Friedman says. “The burning sensation when you bite into a cayenne pepper maximizes digestion by stimulating saliva, enzyme production and gastric fluids. This helps your body metabolize the food you eat, absorb nutrients and increases energy expenditure. Another reason cayenne peppers keep you from overeating is that they help reduce the production of the hunger hormone ghrelin.”
Friedman also says, similar to serranos, the capsaicin in cayenne peppers has strong pain-relieving properties, and they can even be applied to the skin to provide relief from psoriasis, arthritis, muscle pain, nerve pain, surgery-related pain and lower back pain. “Just don’t do the rub-down while eating at a Mexican restaurant,” he says.
5) Jalapeño (a Child Can Handle This One): “Jalapeños offer a good amount of minerals, like potassium, manganese, iron and magnesium,” Friedman says. “Potassium is an important component of cellular and bodily fluids that helps control heart rate and blood pressure. Meanwhile, manganese is required for the normal functioning of your brain, nervous system and many of the body’s enzyme systems.” Friedman also mentions that jalapeños contain a hefty portion of vitamin A.
Expectant mothers in particular can benefit from a diet high in jalapeños, provided they can keep them down. “Jalapeños are helpful for pregnant women and their babies, because they offer an excellent source of folic acid, which has been shown to help with neural tube formation and red blood cell formation in prenatal babies,” Friedman explains. “A deficiency of folic acid in pregnant women can lead to the birth of underweight infants and may also result in neural tube defects in newborns.”
“Jalapeños can help with weight loss as well,” Friedman continues. “According to the Journal of Biological Chemistry, the hot flavor of jalapeños may diminish your appetite, helping you to eat less at meals and help reduce abdominal fat. Studies have also shown that, since jalapeños inhibit a key brain pain transmitter, they may also offer relief from migraine headaches.”
6) Poblano (Not Hot at All): “One poblano contains about 25 percent of the recommended daily value for riboflavin — more than a single egg offers,” Friedman says. “Riboflavin has been shown to help protect against colorectal cancer. And while poblanos might burn your tongue, they actually contain anti-cancer properties that protect against oral cancer.”
“Another method by which the poblano may help fight cancer is by disrupting a process called nitrosation, where some organic compounds can be converted into carcinogenic molecules,” Friedman continues. “Poblanos may also help maintain a healthy lipid profile, which means they help lower fat in your blood, reducing your risk of metabolic diseases related to obesity.”
Poblanos also contain a heart-healthy nutrient called quercetin. “This has been used to reduce inflammation, heart disease, diabetes and prevent cancer,” Friedman explains. “Poblanos also contain vitamin B2, which is known to help prevent glaucoma and cataracts.”
7) Bell (Literally No Heat Whatsoever): “Considering these are sweet peppers, it was hard to find a fair place for them in this ranking,” Friedman admits. “They have a Scoville heat index of zero, so you won’t get the benefits of capsaicin like you would with hotter peppers. However, bell peppers are very high in vitamin C, with a single one providing up to 169 percent of the recommended daily intake. Other vitamins and minerals in bell peppers include vitamin K, vitamin E, vitamin A, folate and potassium.” Vitamin K helps with blood clotting, and folate helps create DNA.
“Bell peppers also contain more than 30 different types of carotenoids, which include alpha-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin and lycopene,” Friedman says. “The carotenoids are phytonutrients responsible for the red, orange and yellow coloring, and they’ve been found to help improve eye health, including the prevention of cataracts. Carotenoids also help absorb damaging blue light [which is released from computer and phone screens] as it enters the eyes and prevents eye damage. The green bell peppers contain more lutein than any others on the list: Adequate intake of lutein may also improve eye health, including age-related macular degeneration. It may also help prevent colon cancer, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.”
Which brings us back to something we mentioned early on: Some colors are healthier than others. “All four colored bell peppers help prevent the oxidation of cholesterol, but green peppers show a slightly higher edge for helping those suffering with cholesterol issues,” Friedman explains. “The yellow bell peppers have the lowest beta-carotene out of the bunch; however, they make up for this deficit with the highest level of a carotenoid called violaxanthin. This powerful antioxidant in yellow bell peppers can help protect against skin cancer.”
8) Thai (Will 100% Burn Coming Out The Other End): “There’s no single ‘Thai pepper,’ although most candidates for the title are small in size and high in heat,” Friedman explains. “These chilies are used in soups, salads, sauces and stir-fried dishes. These peppers are pronounced as ‘prik’ in Thailand, but it’s probably not a good idea to tell your waiter that you prefer a lot of ‘prik,’ since this may bring some strange looks from the people at the table next to you.”
Similar to bell peppers, Thai peppers come in many colors, but they can be extremely hot. “Thai Peppers can be ferociously hot, coming in between 50,000 to 100,000 Scoville heat units,” Friedman says. “Thai peppers are often called ‘dragon peppers,’ and this title is quite fitting considering they have a lot of fire (like a dragon’s breath) and their shape looks like the claws of a dragon.”
As for their health benefits, “Thai peppers contain potassium, a mineral that has beneficial effects on the body, including relaxing blood vessels, thus causing improved circulation,” says Friedman. “Thai peppers are also an excellent source of riboflavin and niacin: Niacin increases a person’s good cholesterol levels, also reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Plus, niacin deficiency can lead to a disease called pellagra, which is characterized by insomnia, dementia and diarrhea.”
9) Shishito (A Cat Could Eat These, No Problem): “Shishito peppers are a popular option for chefs that want to turn up the heat ever so slightly,” Friedman says. “These glossy, green Japanese peppers have a Scoville score of up to 200 units.”
“One serving (about eight peppers) provides 170 percent of your recommended daily vitamin C and 80 percent of your daily vitamin A, as well as loads of vitamin K and vitamin B6,” Friedman continues. “Shishito peppers offer anti-inflammatory properties and their capsaicin content can help speed up your metabolism. They’re a great source of antioxidants, which help fight cellular free radical damage that many experts have linked to heart disease and cancer.”
10) Carolina Reaper (Would Make Satan Himself Cry, Then Drink Lava To Cool His Mouth Off): This is the hottest pepper in the world, with a Scoville score of 2.2 million units. “If you think a jalapeño is hot, the Carolina Reaper is 200 times hotter,” Friedman warns. “The Reaper has the highest capsaicin level compared to any other pepper, and if it doesn’t melt your face off, it has anti-inflammatory properties — except for that inflamed tongue — and heart-protecting properties, if your ticker can survive the sudden rise in blood pressure, heart rate and fear of dying.”
But is that enough of a reason to eat it? Almost definitely not. “Last year, a 34-year-old man was hospitalized with severe debilitating headaches after eating a Carolina Reaper,” Friedman says (hey, I wrote about that). “Brain scans revealed that the arteries in his brain were constricted and he was diagnosed with cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome secondary to the Carolina Reaper.”
“While negative effects from eating this extremely hot pepper are rare, it poses the question, why take the risk? Personally, I enjoy a little spiciness, but when it comes to this pepper, no thanks,” Friedman concludes. “I fear the Reaper.”
Me too, man. Me too.