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Cayenne or red pepper (Capsicum frutenscens) is the fruit of the Capsicum annuum longum, a shrubby tropical plant that can grow to a height of up to 3 feet.
The fruit is technically a berry and is usually 1 to 2 cm in diameter and 1 to 12 cm in length. Although cayenne is typically red, other varieties of Capsicum annuum can vary in color from purple to orange and yellow. The common name “cayenne” was given to this pepper because of its cultivation in the town that bears its name in French Guiana, on the north eastern coast of South America.
Cayenne and most other Capsicum varieties are typically moderately to very spicy. However, paprika is a milder, sweeter-tasting fruit produced by a different variety of Capsicum annuum.
Although cayenne pepper is native to Central and South America, it is now cultivated in tropical locations throughout the world and has found its way into the cuisine‘s unique to many warm climates, particularly those of the south east Asia, China, southern Italy, and Mexico.
It is not surprising that cayenne peppers, as well as other chili peppers, can trace their 7000-year history to Central and South America, regions whose cuisines are renowned for their hot and spicy flavors. In these regions cayenne peppers were used first as a decorative item and subsequently as a food spice and medicine.
The folk remedy uses of cayenne pepper are quite extensive. It was used for asthma, fevers, sore throat and other respiratory tract infections, digestive disturbances, poultices, and cancers. From a nutritional standpoint, cayenne peppers are packed with nutrients, particularly vitamin C and carotene.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, cayenne and other chili peppers made their global debut. Christopher Columbus encountered the spicy plants while exploring the Caribbean islands. He brought them back to Europe, where they served as a substitute for black pepper, which, since it had to be imported from Asia at the time, was very expensive. Ferdinand Magellan spread the popularity of Cayenne peppers into Africa and Asia during his visit there. For a variety of reasons, the people of these continents quickly incorporated Cayenne pepper not only into the culinary life but also into their medicine. While cayenne and chili peppers are actively cultivated on all continents, Spain, China, Turkey, Nigeria, and Mexico are among the largest commercial producers, while the less spicy variety, paprika, is cultivated extensively in eastern European countries.
The intense heat produced by cayenne pepper is produced by its high concentration of capsaicin. This compound is well recognized in clinical research as an effective pain reliever; as a digestive and anti-also aid; and for its cardiovascular benefits. In addition, one of the reasons why tropical cultures quickly fell in love with the incredible fruit of this plant is that capsaicin has the ability to lower body temperature, helping to deal with the intense tropical heat.
Capsaicin is also the component responsible for a cayenne pepper‘s ability to increase basal metabolic rate and stimulate the burning of fat for energy. Capsaicin is responsible for the irritating affect of red pepper when it is applied to the skin or ingested via its ability to cause the release of substance P (the “P” stands for “pain”) from nerve cells, which intern result in irritation and pain.
However once substance P is released, capsaicin works to block its re-uptake. The net result is that repeated applications of capsaicin deplete substance P from small nerve fibers, thereby eventually block in the pain sensation. A similar occurrence happens with the ingestion of cayenne pepper in that the more frequently it is consumed, the greater the tolerance.
Capsaicin containing creams and gels are available as FDA approved topical treatments for arthritis and pain such as that scene in diabetic neuropathy. Clinical studies demonstrate that capsaicin products applied topically can produce impressive results in cases of psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, and postherperic pain (postherpetic neuralgia). Topical capsaicin preparations have been shown to be an effective treatment for cluster headaches and osteoarthritis pain.
Cayenne pepper exerts beneficial effects internally as well. Perhaps most important are effects of stimulating and enhancing digestion. A recent New England Journal of Medicine Study found that daily doses of red pepper significantly reduced symptoms of indigestion in individuals with frequent indigestion (functional dyspepsia).
Although people with active peptic ulcer may be bothered by “spicy” foods containing cayenne pepper, spicy foods do not cause ulcers in normal individuals. Furthermore, there is some evidence that supports the idea that spicy foods containing cayenne and turmeric may actually help heal peptic ulcer‘s. Specifically, double-blind studies have shown that red pepper consumption protects against aspirin induced stomach damage and improved abdominal pain, fullness, and nausea scores and people with non-ulcer dyspepsia.
Nonetheless, some people definitely seem to be bothered by cayenne pepper ingestion, as it may lower the threshold for heartburn in these people. Cayenne pepper also exerts a number of beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system. Specifically, it reduces the likelihood of developing atherosclerosis by reducing blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels and platelet aggregation, as well as increasing fibrinolytic activity. Fibrinolytic activity refers to the ability to prevent the formation of blood clots, which can lead to a heart attack, stroke, or pulmonary embolism. People in cultures consuming large amounts of cayenne pepper have much lower rates of these diseases.
Interestingly enough, capsaicin, although hot to the taste, has actually been shown to lower body temperature by stimulating the cooling center of the hypothalamus in the brain. The ingestion of cayenne pepper by cultures native to the tropics appears to offer a way for people living in those areas to get relief from high temperatures.
Finally, several studies have shown that increasing the intake of cayenne pepper may be an effective method of increasing the basal metabolic rate and the burning of fat for energy (lipid oxidation). Similar results have been noted with garlic and ginger in animal studies. Adding red pepper (as well as garlic and ginger) to your diet is a safe, natural way to enhance the burning of fat.
Capsaicin also has a stimulating effect on the mucous membranes of the nose and sinuses. Capsaicin stimulates blood flow through the membranes and causes mucus secretions to become thinner and more liquid. This action makes it beneficial in combating the common cold or sinus infections.
SELECTION & STORAGE
Cayenne peppers are available as whole fresh, whole dried, crushed dried, or ground. Paprika is available dried and ground. Select according to the recipe in which they will be used. If you choose to grind your own, be careful not to inhale any dust that may form, which can be irritating to the lungs.
As with other dried spices, choose organically grown dried cayenne pepper whenever possible, since organically grown herbs are much less likely to have been irradiated.
Cayenne peppers and paprika should be kept in a tightly sealed glass jar, away from direct sunlight, where they will keep for up to one year.
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