The bell pepper is, yes, sweet and versatile, but did you know that it also helps you fight everything from the common cold to cancer?
This delicious food is familiar to many of us for its sweet taste and ability to be stuffed chock-full of yummy stuff before being eaten. But the benefits go far beyond taste — bell peppers have a ton of incredibly essential vitamins, antioxidants and minerals that will help you maintain a healthy lifestyle (and maybe even shed a few pounds).
If you’d like to reduce your risk of illness, heart disease and cancer, you should probably keep reading about the incredible bell pepper.
What Is A Bell Pepper?
The bell pepper is a cultivar group of the Capsicum annum species of plants, part of the family of foods known as nightshade vegetables. Botanically, it’s a fruit, but nutritionally considered a vegetable.
While the other cultivars within this species are famous for their capsaicin content (which is what gives most peppers and chilis, such as cayenne peppers, their spicy taste), bell peppers contain no capsaicin and are referred to in many cultures as “sweet peppers.”
There are various color varieties of bell peppers, with the most common being red, yellow and green. However, you may find them more infrequently in orange, brown, white and lavender.
There are nutritional differences between colors of bell peppers — for example, a red bell pepper contains over eight times the amount of vitamin A than a green bell pepper.
My favorite thing about bell peppers is their extremely high concentration of antioxidants. Just one of these handy veggies will provide more than twice the daily recommended amount of vitamin C, and three-fourths of your daily needed vitamin A intake.
And the best part? When you eat these vitamins rather than take them in supplement form, your body is able to absorb exactly the amount you need and safely expel the rest. This is especially important in regards to vitamin A, because overdosing on vitamin A supplements (what is known as “preformed” vitamin A) can cause extremely serious side effects. But this is not so when you consume it through your diet!
One medium-sized red bell pepper (about 119 grams) contains: (1)
- 37 calories
- 5 milligrams sodium
- 7 grams carbohydrate
- 5 grams sugar
- 1 gram protein
- 152 milligrams vitamin C (253 percent DV)
- 3726 international units vitamin A (75 percent DV)
- 0.3 milligrams vitamin B6 (17 percent DV)
- 54.7 micrograms folate (14 percent DV)
- 2 grams fiber (8 percent DV)
- 5.8 micrograms Vitamin K (7 percent DV)
- 1.2 milligrams niacin (6 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligrams thiamine (4 percent DV)
1. Part of a diet designed to help you lose weight
People often ask me if I know the “secret” to lose weight fast. The answer to that question is more complicated than a simple “yes,” because while losing weight fast is possible, it must be done in a healthy, lasting way in order to be effective long-term.
A few of my dietary weight loss tips have a lot to do with snacking and homemade meals, because healthy snacks and controlling your food by cooking it yourself are two of the most important parts of a lifestyle diet to maintain healthy weight. Bell peppers are super helpful with both snacks and home-cooked meals in this way.
At only 37 calories per serving, bell peppers can provide your body with a huge number of nutrients while minimally impacting the amount of calories you consume in a day. They are also great to use as substitutions for many unhealthy foods. For example, want a crunch in your mid-morning snack? Try sliced bell peppers instead of potato chips.
2. Reduces risk of cancer and heart disease
Like so many healthy foods, bell peppers play a role in reducing your risk of cancer and heart disease when they’re a regular part of your diet. Bell pepper nutrition lists a large number of carotenoids, plant-based antioxidants that help reduce the damage that oxidation causes on your cells. The red variety of this type of pepper in particular contains very high quantities of beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin.
Eating foods high in carotenoids (especially beta-carotene!) has been shown to help reduce the risk of cancer and significantly reduce the free radical activity in your body. (2)
Interestingly, one way to further increase the efficacy of antioxidants in your bell peppers is to steam cook them. A 2008 study in California found that steam cooking bell peppers and various other antioxidant-rich foods improved an activity called “bile acid binding capacity.”
Why is that important? Increased bile acid binding capacity means that bile acids are recirculated less as your body processes food, utilizing cholesterol more efficiently and reducing the body’s absorption of fat, reducing your risk of heart disease. Poor bile acid binding capacity is also associated with increased cancer risk, so make sure to steam those bell peppers to get the most out of them you can. (3)
3. Supports healthy eyes
I just mentioned that bell peppers contain high levels of the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin. Those two antioxidants are must-haves when it comes to keeping your eyes healthy! Green bell peppers have over half a milligram of lutein and zeaxanthin, which makes it one of the best natural sources of these antioxidants!
Lutein is already a well-accepted natural treatment for macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in older adults. By filtering out short-wavelength UV light that can easily damage the retina, this antioxidant helps protect the degeneration of eye cells that lead to this disease. Researchers at Harvard discovered that just 6 milligrams of supplemented lutein per day can reduce your chance of developing this disease by 43 percent! (4)
For older people who already have cataracts, lutein can improve vision. Other eye-related benefits include reducing eye fatigue, decreasing light and glare sensitivity and improved acute vision. (5)
4. Improves immunity
Bell pepper nutrition contains more than one sickness-fighting power punch! The high presence of vitamin A is essential to fighting both serious diseases, such as cancer, as well as more short-term illnesses, such as the common cold.
Much research has been conducted on the immune-boosting benefits of vitamin A supplementation, especially in low- and middle-income nations where children are extremely susceptible to vitamin deficiencies that lead to illness and disease. In one study out of London, vitamin A supplementation increased childhood mortality by an astonishing 24 percent, while also noting that a deficiency in this nutrient increased the children’s immunity to things such as diarrhea and measles.
Another child-related study in Colombia found that the country saved over $340 million dollars when supplementing just 100 children with vitamin A that would have otherwise been deficient. (6)
If you undergo a significant amount of stress, bell peppers may also help improve your immunity because of their high vitamin C content. People who have high amounts of vitamin C in their system are less likely to contract everything from colds to cancer, and vitamin C is essential to correcting the weakened immune system associated with high stress levels. (7)
In general, bell peppers are one food that can help reduce inflammation in your body, which is actually at the root of most diseases.
5. Helps you maintain good mental health
The good vitamins in bell pepper nutrition are also beneficial in maintaining prime cognitive health. It’s why bell peppers are consider one of the best brain foods.
One such benefit of bell peppers is the high presence of vitamin B6, which increases the levels of serotonin and norepinephrine, sometimes referred to as the “happy hormones.” High levels of these hormones are associated with improved mood, higher energy levels and more concentration, while low levels have been commonly linked with several mental disorders such as ADHD. (8)
A vitamin B6 deficiency has also been shown to contribute to cognitive impairment that comes with age and may even increase risk of Alzheimer’s and/or dementia. (9)
6. Keeps your skin glowing and healthy
Not only is a large amount of vitamin C good for your immune system, but it’s also great for your skin! This, along with the carotenoids found in bell peppers, improves the health of your skin and promotes collagen production.
People with high levels of Vitamin C have skin that is less dry and wrinkled, and they also are at a lower risk of developing skin cancer. I highly recommend that, in addition to healthy sunbathing habits, you fight skin cancer with food.
7. Promotes a healthy pregnancy
Bell peppers contain 14 percent of the daily recommended amount of folate, a vital nutrient for pregnant mothers. In fact, the daily recommendation for folate goes up approximately an additional 50 percent in pregnant women because of its role in preventing birth defects and keeping unborn children healthy.
Not only does folate help reduce birth defects, it also promotes healthy neural tube development, helps in a child growing to an appropriate birth rate before delivery, and causes the face and heart to develop properly.
Peppers have been a popular food for many families for thousands of years. The earliest record of the pepper is from 6,100 years ago in southwestern Ecuador, where families would grow them in their own farms. (10)
The earliest mention of the bell pepper specifically occurred in 1699, when Lionel Wafer mentioned it as growing in the Ithsmus of America in his book, A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America. Again in 1774, Edward Long mentioned them when writing about various varieties of pepper currently being cultivated in Jamaica. (11)
Interestingly, the term “pepper” was assigned to this food by Christopher Columbus when importing them back to Europe from the Americas. Although they have little in common with the peppercorn which first bore the name, the spicy flavor of different types of what we now know as peppers inspired him to consider them a member of the same family. The bell variety was named such because of its bell-like shape.
The bell pepper is also unique because it lacks the capsaicin found in other cultivars in the species Capsicum annum. Due to a recessive form of a gene, this is the only variety of pepper that provides only sweet flavor without the burning sensation of its brothers.
How to Select
All bell peppers are not grown equally, so be cautious in your shopping. They make the Dirty Dozen List of foods identified by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) as having the largest concentration of pesticides when bought in non-organic form.
Buying your bell peppers organic is not only important because of the presence of pesticides, but because organic bell peppers contain a much better antioxidant load. Researchers in Poland discovered in 2012 that organic bell peppers contain “significantly more vitamin C, total carotenoids, β-carotene, α-carotene, cis-β-carotene, total phenolic acids and flavonoids compared with [non-organic varieties].” (12)
As with most fruits and vegetables, try to choose bell peppers without any obvious damage. The brighter the flavor, the fresher your peppers will be.
The preparation methods are endless with these handy vegetables. You can eat them raw, roast them, grill them or anything in between. Like I mentioned earlier, steaming them particularly improves their nutritional value, so I would suggest doing that fairly often when adding peppers to your recipes.
One of the oldest and most popular recipes for the bell pepper is the stuffed pepper, first found in a Boston cookbook in 1896. Well, my recipe may not be identical to that one, but I love this recipe for Quinoa Stuffed Peppers. It’s simple and delicious!
I also really enjoy substituting life-giving foods for starchy, unhealthy ones, like in this Vegetarian Egg Casserole. This spin on a traditional breakfast dish is especially useful for feeding larger groups.
Another version of the stuffed pepper that is a great option if you’re looking for something filling is this Stuffed Peppers with Rice recipe.
Allergies and Side Effects
It is possible to have an allergy or intolerance to bell peppers. (13) If you find you have any symptoms of an allergic reaction immediately after eating bell peppers, such as eczema, itching, nasal congestion or digestive problems, stop eating them and contact your doctor immediately.
If you experience cramping, bloating, diarrhea or vomiting right after eating bell peppers, you may also have a non-allergic intolerance to them. Be sure to contact your doctor right away if you ever find this happening to you.
- You can find bell peppers in various colors, the most common being red, green and yellow. The different colors carry different nutritional content.
- Bell peppers are the only member of their family that aren’t spicy, because they lack capsaicin.
- Bell peppers are stuffed (nutritionally) with incredibly high amounts of vitamin C and A, which contribute to a healthy immune system and reduced risk of disease.
- The antioxidants in bell peppers also keep your eyes and skin healthy and can even keep your brain functioning at peak levels.
- The folate in bell peppers is great for pregnant moms to keep their babies growing the right way.
- Bell peppers were first mentioned in the 17th century as a common food item.
- It is especially important to purchase organic bell peppers, because they have an exceptionally high pesticide occurrence otherwise. Organic bell peppers also have significantly more antioxidants than non-organic versions.
- It is possible to be allergic to bell peppers, although this is fairly uncommon.