Bell peppers belong to the nightshade (Solanaceae) family of plants, along with chili pepper, cayenne pepper, eggplant, tomatoes and common potatoes (but not sweet potatoes or yams). Their species name is Capsicum annuum. This species name can be a bit confusing, however, since it , is used to refer not only to sweet bell peppers, but also to many different kinds of hot peppers, including cayenne peppers, chili peppers, jalapeno peppers, and others. One of the reasons that we use the name “bell peppers” on our website is to distinguish these mild and sometimes sweet-tasting vegetables from their hot pepper counterparts. In fact, in many articles about bell peppers, you will find them being referred to both as “bell peppers” and “sweet peppers.”
- Most varieties of bell peppers start off green in color and undergo color changes during the process of maturation. These color changes can range from emerging yellow and oranges to reds and purples and lilacs and even deep purple shades that appear nearly black in color. Sometimes these darker versions are referred to as chocolate bell peppers. We have also seen brown bell peppers and ivory bell peppers. These colorful bell peppers are often more expensive than their green counterparts since extra growing time is needed for color development and this additional time means increased production costs. With respect to color, it’s also worth noting that some varieties of bell peppers can stay green throughout the maturation process, and some varieties can also undergo color changes very early in the development process.
- Bell peppers – especially varieties that mature into dazzling shades of yellow, orange, and red – are well-known for the carotenoid content. (These carotenoids are the nutrients that earn bell peppers a spot on our Top 15 list of foods for vitamin A.) A recent study analyzed the impact of freezing on bell pepper carotenoids with interesting results. They found good retention of these carotenoids after the bell peppers were cut and frozen for 6 months at a very low temperature (-20C/-4F). (Between 80-90% of each carotenoid was retained after freezing.) While we always encourage consumption of vegetables in fresh form, these solid carotenoid results after freezing are the reason to consider freezing if it works better in meal planning.
- A study from Poland has recently compared differences in carotenoids, flavonoids, phenolic acids, and vitamin C from bell peppers grown using organic standards versus more conventional cultivation methods. Both carotenoids and vitamin C were found to be about 10% higher in the organically grown bell peppers. Total phenolic acids were about 30% higher, yet flavonoids were about 7-8% lower. When the researchers did further analysis on the flavonoid results, they found some very interesting nutrient dynamics. One of the flavonoids – quercetin – was, as expected, measurably higher in the organically grown bell peppers (by about 10%, just like carotenoids and vitamin C). However, levels of another flavonoid – kaempferol- depended as much on the specific variety of bell pepper as the growing method. In this context, the researchers concluded that kaempferol might be a flavonoid not as sensitive to growing methods as some of its fellow flavonoids. Still, taken as a whole, this study provides further evidence about the benefits organically grown bell peppers. And it adds to the many reasons that we have always supported the consumption of organically grown foods on our website.
- One of the many things we love about bell peppers is their amazing variety of colors while at the same time determining red bell peppers to have greater amounts for two specific carotenoids, namely lutein, and beta-carotene. This result is not surprising since bell peppers are continually changing their synthesis of different carotenoids and other pigments as they mature. And not included in this study were the more deeply-shaded lilac, purple, and very deep purple (nearly black-shaded) bell peppers that also change their synthesis of anthocyanin pigments as they mature. Yet while expected, these results also remind us to take advantage of bell peppers in their full diversity of color.
As a minimum daily goal for vegetable intake from the yellow/orange group, we recommend ½ cup per day. A more optimal intake level would be one cup per day. If you opt for red or purple bell peppers instead of orange or yellow ones, we recommend that you treat bell peppers as part of the red/purple vegetable subgroup. Our minimum recommended intake level for this subgroup is ½ cup per day and our more optimal recommended intake is one cup. Beets, red tomatoes, red and purple carrots, and eggplant would be examples of other vegetables in this red/purple subgroup.
Bell Peppers, sliced,
GI: very low
Health Benefits of Bell Peppers
In the “very good” conventional nutrient category, bell peppers provide us with a good number of B vitamins (including vitamin B2, vitamin B3, folate, and pantothenic acid), as well as vitamin E, potassium, molybdenum, and fiber. Bell peppers also contain vitamin K, vitamin B1, manganese, phosphorus, and magnesium in good amounts. Overall, we get a remarkable wealth of conventional nutrients from this popular vegetable.
In addition to providing us with such a rich mix of conventional nutrients, however, bell peppers also offer an equally rich mix of phytonutrients. Because most of these phytonutrients fall into the antioxidant category, we’ve featured them separately below.
- Antioxidant Benefits from Phytonutrients in Bell Peppers
- Hydroxycinnamic acid derivatives
- Hydroxybenzoic acid derivatives
In keeping with the many research studies on bell pepper carotenoids, it’s worth noting the great antioxidant benefits provided by this group of bell pepper phytonutrients. One cup of freshly sliced bell pepper contains about 1,500 micrograms of beta-carotene, the equivalent of approximately 1/3rd small carrot. Interestingly, red bell peppers may contain greater amounts of beta-carotene than their fellow bell peppers in the yellow and orange category. However, these yellow and orange bell peppers still contain more total carotenoids than the reds. On the list of potential carotenoids provided by bell peppers are alpha-carotene, antheraxanthin, beta-carotene, capsanthin, capsorubin, cryptoflavin, cryptoxanthin, lutein, lycopene, vicenin, and zeaxanthin. We use the word “potential” because specific carotenoids (and other phytonutrients) can vary substantially as these vegetables mature. For example, while many varieties of bell peppers provide the carotenoids lycopene, others do not. (In fact, our nutrient profile for bell peppers does not show any lycopene to be present, since this specific carotenoid was not identified in the variety of bell pepper that was analyzed. Unless you have a special reason for wanting to increase your intake of one particular carotenoid in your meal plan, we recommend that you consider enjoying the full variety of colors in which bell peppers can be found. In that way, you will be most likely to maximize your intake not only of different carotenoids but of bell pepper phytonutrients as a whole
2. Risk reduction for numerous chronic diseases
They include cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diseases related to the regulation of blood sugar. What these diseases have in common (along with other diseases as well) is an underlying component of oxidative stress. We would expect this component to become less problematic with improved dietary intake of antioxidants. In addition, because many of these antioxidant phytonutrients also act in an anti-inflammatory capacity, we would expect these anti-inflammatory benefits to contribute to lower risk in each of the above disease areas. What is lacking, however, at this point in the research process are large-scale studies that focus on bell pepper intake in everyday meal plans. Animal studies have already shown blood sugar-lowering effects following intake of bell pepper extracts, and lab studies have also suggested different metabolic pathways through which blood sugar might be lowered. But human studies are needed to confirm these same benefits from ordinary food intake. In terms of cardiovascular benefits, we have seen studies showing bile acid-binding by fiber-related nutrients in bell peppers. Because this binding process prevents the absorption of bile acids up into the body, our liver will seek to replace them by breaking down cholesterol into its component parts – namely, bile acids. So the net result here can be a reduction in our blood cholesterol level. But similar to the research on blood sugar, we need studies on everyday meal plans to draw conclusions about food intake of bell pepper.
3. The health of The Eye
The area of eye health may also turn out to be important with respect to bell pepper intake. Just one cup of sweet green bell pepper slices provides us with 314 micrograms (combined) of the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin. These two particular carotenoids are found in high concentrations in the macula of the eye (the centermost part of the retina), and they are required for the protection of the macula from oxygen-related damage. In one condition called age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, the macula of the eye can become damaged and vision can potentially become lost. We would expect future studies on bell pepper intake to show benefits in this area of AMD risk due to the impressive lutein/zeaxanthin content of this vegetable (about 45-50 micrograms for these two carotenoids combined.) In this context, we would also like to note that a recent study has shown red bell peppers to contain greater amounts of lutein than their fellow greens or yellows.
One final area of special interest in the potential for bell peppers to help lower the risk of neurodegenerative disease, and particularly Alzheimer’s disease. Overacculumation of amyloid proteins in the spaces surrounding certain nerve cells (called cholinergic neurons) is known to contribute to our risk of Alzheimer’s. In order for these amyloid proteins to accumulate, however, they must first be freed from another protein structure called amyloid precursor protein, or APP. This process is moved along with the help of enzymes called secretases. What recent studies have shown is the ability of bell pepper extracts to block the activity of these secretase enzymes, preventing the release of amyloid proteins. In one study, extracts from both ripe and unripe bell peppers were analyzed, with ripe bell peppers showing a greater ability to block amyloid protein release. While the authors did not report the ripe bell peppers as being any particular color, we would assume that darker shaded bell peppers (from deep oranges to reds to purples) would correspond to the pepper which showed the greatest impact. Once again, we view this area of research as a promising one for demonstrating further health benefits from this vegetable.
How to Select and Store
Choose peppers that have deep vivid colors, taut skin, and that are free of soft spots, blemishes and darkened areas. Their stems should be green and fresh looking. Peppers should be heavy for their size (reflecting their thick, well-formed and well-hydrated walls) and firm enough so that they will only yield slightly to a small amount of pressure. Avoid those that have signs of decay including injuries to the skin or water-soaked areas. The shape of the pepper does not generally affect the quality, although it may result in excessive waste or not be suitable to certain recipe preparations. Peppers are available throughout the year but are usually in greater abundance during the summer and early fall months.
For many vegetables, the degree of ripeness is a central and fairly straightforward factor when you making a food selection in the produce department. In the case of bell peppers, however, there is no single moment of ripeness that represents the “optimal” choice for this vegetable. There are definitely bell peppers that you will want to avoid due to overripeness. In this case, what we mean by “overripeness” is especially soft or wrinkly. At a minimum, we recommend the selection of bell peppers that have retained a “slight sponginess” in the way that the sides of the pepper respond to gentle pressure. The sides of the pepper should yield slightly, but not to the point of giving way to the pressure. This type of “feel-based” testing is your best way to identify bell peppers that have not overripened.
At the other end of the ripening spectrum, however, it can be acceptable to select bell peppers that are even more firm than described above. In their earlier stages of maturation, bell peppers can naturally remain less spongy to the touch. This lesser degree of sponginess does not mean that the bell peppers are problematic to eat, however, or that they lack good nutrient content. Less mature bell peppers still provide a wealth of nutrients. However, it is also true that the carotenoids and anthocyanins in bell peppers aren’t generally available in plentiful amounts until bell peppers have reached later stages in their maturation process. So if you are focusing on these particular types of phytonutrients, you’ll usually do best to select bell peppers in their later stages of maturation in which is the rule of slight sponginess is your best selection method.
It’s important to remember that bell peppers can take on many different color shades and that hybrids are available that contain two or more color shades in the same bell pepper. In addition, bell peppers can develop these color shades during different stages of maturation. As long as you avoid overripeness by using the pressure test method described above, you can enjoy bell peppers from different stages of development and varying shades of color and still count on receiving strong nutrient benefits.
At GreenHealthDoc, we encourage the purchase of certified organically grown foods, and bell peppers are no exception. Repeated research studies on organic foods as a group show that your likelihood of exposure to contaminants such as pesticides and heavy metals can be greatly reduced through the purchased of certified organic foods, including bell peppers. In many cases, you may be able to find a local organic grower who sells bell peppers but has not applied for formal organic certification either through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or through a state agency. (Examples of states offering state-certified organic foods include California, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.) However, if you are shopping in a large supermarket, your most reliable source of organically grown bell peppers is very likely to be bell peppers that display the USDA organic logo
Bell Pepper and Refrigeration
Unwashed bell peppers stored in the vegetable compartment of the refrigerator will keep for approximately 7-10 days.
Here is some background on why we recommend refrigerating bell peppers. Whenever food is stored, four basic factors affect its nutrient composition: exposure to air, exposure to light, exposure to heat, and length of time in storage. Vitamin C, vitamin B6, and carotenoids are good examples of nutrients highly susceptible to heat, and for this reason, their loss from food is very likely to be slowed down through refrigeration. In this context, it also seems worth repeating that bell peppers are our Number 1 vegetable source of vitamin C at WHFoods, and also our Number 5 source of vitamin B6. So you can see how this principle might be especially important in the case of bell peppers.
Because bell peppers need to still well hydrated and are very sensitive to moisture loss, we further recommend that you include a damp cloth or paper towel in the vegetable compartment to help the peppers retain their moisture. Do not cut out the bell pepper stem prior to storage in the refrigerator. Bell peppers are especially sensitive to moisture loss through this stem (calyx) portion and are more susceptible to chilling injury if the stem is removed. Sweet peppers can be frozen without first being blanched. It is better to freeze them whole since there will be less exposure to air which can degrade both their nutrient content and flavor.
Before closing this section on bell peppers nutrients and refrigeration, we would like to add one possible exception to the refrigeration rule. If you have purchased a variety of bell pepper that is still mostly green yet in the process of changing color, and you prefer to let the new color-related nutrients develop more fully, you may want to keep the bell pepper for a day or two at room temperature rather than placing it in your refrigerator. At a temperature of about 68F/20C, your bell pepper can proceed more quickly with its change in color. For example, if you are wanting to focus on carotenoid intake, a bell pepper variety that is ready to change color from green to yellow or orange should be able to develop its carotenoid content more quickly at room temperature than inside of your refrigerator.
Tips for Preparing and Cooking
Tips for Preparing Bell Peppers
Before coring and/or cutting the pepper, wash it under cold running water. If the pepper has been waxed, you should also scrub it gently but thoroughly with a natural bristle brush.
Use a paring knife to cut around the stem and then gently remove it. Peppers can be cut into various shapes and sizes. To easily chop, dice or cut the peppers into strips, first cut the pepper in half lengthwise, clean out the core and seeds, and then, after placing the skin side down on the cutting surface, cut into the desired size and shape. Peppers can also be cut horizontally into rings or left whole for stuffed peppers. The pulpy white inner cavity of the bell pepper is rich in flavonoids and can be eaten, even though some people have a personal preference for removing this section.
The Nutrient-Rich Way of Cooking Bell Peppers
Of all of the cooking methods we tried when cooking bell peppers, our favorite is Healthy Sauté (Quick Steaming and Quick Boiling) our other recommended cooking methods—follows three basic cooking guidelines that are generally associated with food science research with improved nutrient retention. These three guidelines are (1) minimal necessary heat exposure; (2) minimal necessary cooking duration; (3) minimal necessary food surface contact with cooking liquid.
To Healthy Sauté bell peppers, heat 3 TBS of broth (vegetable or chicken) or water in a stainless steel skillet. Once bubbles begin to form add sliced red bell peppers, cover, and Healthy Sauté for 3 minutes on medium heat. After 3 minutes add 2 TBS broth, then cook uncovered on low heat for another 4 minutes, stirring constantly. Transfer to a bowl and toss with our Mediterranean Dressing. (See our Healthy Sautéed Red Bell Peppers recipe for details on how to prepare this dish.)
How to Enjoy
A Few Quick Serving Ideas
- Add finely chopped bell peppers to tuna or chicken salad.
- After Healthy Sautéeing chopped peppers, celery and onions, combine with tofu, chicken or seafood to make a simple Louisiana Creole dish.
- Purée roasted and peeled peppers with Healthy Sautéed onions and zucchini to make a deliciously refreshing soup that can be served hot or cold.
- Bell peppers are one of the best vegetables to serve in a crudité platter since not only do they add a brilliant splash of color, but their texture is also the perfect crunchy complement for dips.
Bell peppers are an outstanding source of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients. These phytonutrients include flavonoids (luteolin, quercetin, hesperidin) and hydroxycinnamic acids (especially ferulic and cinnamic acids). But the hallmark phytonutrient group found in bell peppers is the carotenoid family, with more than 30 different carotenoids being provided by this vegetable. Included in bell pepper carotenoids are alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, cryptoxanthin, lutein, and zeaxanthin. Bell peppers are an excellent source of vitamin A (in the form of carotenoids), vitamin C and vitamin B6. They are a very good source of folate, molybdenum, vitamin E, dietary fiber, vitamin B2, pantothenic acid, niacin, and potassium. Additionally, they are a good source of vitamin K, manganese, vitamin B1, phosphorus and magnesium.
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