MIREILLE BLACKE is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Dietitian-Nutritionist (RD, CD-N), Behavioral Health and Addiction Specialist, and Nutrition Educator with a background in rock radio, the music business, and media. A Connecticut Yankee, Mireille professes a pathological love of New Orleans culture, literature, and food, for which she solidly blames the novels of Anne Rice. Mireille earned an MA in Psychology from Central Connecticut State University, and is presently working on a second MS (in Nutrition) from St. Joseph College.
“In the fall of 1807, I was in Newburyport, and saw a bottle of pepper-sauce. On my way home, I was taken unwell, and was quite cold. I took a swallow from the bottle, which caused violent pain for a few minutes, when it produced perspiration, and I soon grew easy. I afterwards tried it and found that after it had expelled the cold it would not cause pain. From these experiments I became convinced that this kind of pepper was much stronger and would be better for medical use than the common red pepper. Soon after this I was again in Newburyport, and made inquiry and found some Cayenne, but it was prepared with salt for table use which injured it for medical purposes. I afterwards made use of this article and found it to answer all the purposes wished and was the very thing I had long been in search of.”
-Samuel Thomson, “New Guide to Health” (1822)
Though I am completely in love with the food and culture of New Orleans and many other cities of the South, I freely admit I am a culinary coward when it comes to spicy food, and generally will not indulge in some of the more popular dishes found in New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana. I always ask my server or host about the strength of the spice in a particular dish, and am usually told “Oh, it’s mild.” I clarify myself with “I’m a Yankee…from Connecticut. So, really, how spicy is it?” And then, with a slow grin, I am usually advised to order something else.
Fresh cayenne peppers (Capsicum frutescens) are the preferred hot capsicum (a type of pepper plant in the nightshade family) in the South and a key ingredient in hot and spicy dishes. The thin, long, hot pepper in its ground form is a common ingredient in Cajun dishes in particular. The ground powder adds reddish-brown color and fiery heat to sauces, soups, and stews. Cayenne peppers are remarkably diverse in cooking, eaten as readily as a spice or condiment with seafood (scallops, crab, oysters, sardines, smoked salmon and trout, fried mussels, lobster, and crawfish), egg dishes (omelettes and soufflés), meats (roasted, grilled, stewed, or fried), chicken, fish, or in vegetable dishes, soups, casseroles, hors d’oeuvres, and a variety of sauces (barbecue, shellfish, curries, cheese, Worcestershire and tartar sauces) and dips (salsa, avocado, and vegetable).
Cayenne and other chili peppers were grown for thousands of years in the West Indies and Central and South America. Spanish explorers (who were clearly very busy) introduced them to the rest of the world in the 15th and 16th centuries. Christopher Columbus is credited with introducing cayenne pepper to Europe (as a substitute for very expensive black pepper) after finding the capsicum on the Caribbean Islands, and Ferdinand Magellan is historically noted as introducing it to Asia and Africa. Today, cayenne peppers are grown on all continents.
One of the most popular bottled sauce versions of capsicum frutescens is Tabasco sauce. This sauce uses a Tabasco pepper, which was named for the Tabasco region of Mexico. While all the peppers used in Tabasco were originally grown on Avery Island, many now come from Central or South America. However, all the seeds for those plants come from Avery Island. Recipes will note use of Tabasco or cayenne specifically because, even though both add heat to a dish, each reacts differently in the cooking process and different quantities are required. Moreover, the kind of heat each provides is different. Tabasco is, of course, has more salt and vinegar in its flavor profile. The Tabasco company recipe search is worth a web visit for some great suggested uses of cayenne and Tabasco, such as this recipe for Cajun Blackening Rub.
Two teaspoons of finely ground cayenne pepper provides 11 calories. Cayenne is an excellent source of vitamin A (vital to vision, immune function, bone metabolism, skin and cellular health) and beta-carotene (an antioxidant that combats atherosclerosis, colon cancer, and diabetic complications). It is also a good source of vitamin E, vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin K, potassium, manganese and dietary fiber. However, the greatest health benefits of cayenne stem from its high concentration of capsaicin, a substance which creates its characteristic heat. You know the sweating that happens from eating certain peppers? That’s from capsaicin, which stimulates drainage of the sinuses, relieving congestion, and inducing sweating in the process. Capsaicin inhibits substance P, a neuropeptide associated with inflammatory processes and the transport of pain messages to the brain. Studies have shown capsaicin to be effective in treating cluster headaches, osteoarthritis pain, and diabetic neuropathy, and research continues into its effects on pain related to arthritis, psoriasis, and diabetic neuropathy. Additional research has supported claims that cayenne and capsaicin are helpful in fighting inflammation, promoting cardiovascular benefits, boosting immunity, preventing stomach ulcers, and aiding in weight loss.
Despite their reputation to the contrary, chili peppers like cayenne are associated with a reduced risk of stomach ulcers, and may help to prevent them by killing ingested bacteria and stimulating protective gastric juices which prevent ulcers from forming. Cayenne may also relieve stomach aches, gas, and cramps, but excessive amounts may induce frequent bowel movements and stomach irritation.
Though cayenne has a thermogenic effect, which leads to increased body temperature and probable metabolic boost, weight loss is a complicated process. Thermogenic substances can aid in weight loss, but keep in mind that people who often “inhale” their food would have a decreased eating speed when consuming cayenne or peppers like it. The capsicum family of food will also change saliva flow and this will impact eating behavior and appetite as well. All of these factors (in addition to thermogenesis) can impact weight loss.
Because of its effects on metabolism, many supplement manufacturers tout capsaicin as a magic bullet for weight loss. Be skeptical about any claims about “miracle” foods or supplements, and always consult a medical professional before ingesting something that might interact with current medications or impact existing medical conditions.
Luckily, there seems to be no debate about cayenne’s seasoning powers.
Recommendations from this Registered Dietitian (RD):
1) Show your true colors. Cayenne peppers are green initially, and turn red gradually as they ripen. The greater the redness, the hotter the pepper. Inner membranes and seeds add to the heat. Bright red color indicates high vitamin A and beta-carotene levels.
2) Enjoy “hot” chocolate this summer. Cayenne is more commonly used in chocolate confections and baked goods, with great success. Choose a more healthful combination involving dark chocolate. Click here for a cayenne-spiced chocolate cupcake recipe. Keep in mind that while dark chocolate has healthy properties (such as antioxidants), it also has significant sugar, fat, and calories; enjoy in moderation.
3) Entice with spice. Cayenne pepper is one of the most frequently used spices in dishes from Louisiana, and it is part of the foundation of Cajun cooking. A recipe I have used frequently in recent years for Cajun deviled eggs can be found here.
4) Fire it up. Add a pinch of cayenne to existing recipes to enhance many of your basic meals. Introduce some kick to your standard salad dressings, soups or meats, by slicing, chopping or frying whole peppers. Try drying and soaking them in oil for a spicy infusion. Check out OKRA’s own New Orleans Style Barbecue Shrimp recipe here to see what I mean.
5) It works both ways. The capsicum’s heat can be used to mask strong flavors in other foods that some may find unappealing, particularly bitter flavors in collards, kale, and mustard greens. As I have stated in previous articles, I have no problem with culinary sneakiness when it comes to getting healthier foods into your kids or picky eaters. Try this recipe for Quick Collards with Prosciutto.
6) Turn up the heat. Though cayenne does have a thermogenic (heat-producing) effect and can boost metabolism, weight loss efforts require long-term and reasonable lifestyle changes. Maple syrup diets (which feature cayenne as an ingredient) do not qualify!
7) Feel the burn. Tolerance for spice and heat varies, and cayenne is no exception. Add cayenne to your recipes gradually when cooking (a pinch at a time) to avoid excessively hot (and painful) results. Adding potatoes or noodles will cool down a hot dish by spice absorption/neutralization. Milk or yogurt will also help to cool a burning mouth. When cooking with cayenne, avoid touching your skin, particularly your face, lips and eyes.
When I completed my Dietetic Internship, I rewarded myself by adopting a hybrid rescue cat (a marbled Bengal to be exact) with vibrant green eyes and ginger coloring, somewhat improbably (but aptly) named Cayenne. His name partly drew me to him. In addition to the typical Bengal hyperactivity and intelligence, Cayenne has much of the fire and spicy qualities associated with the pepper for which he is named. Appropriately, he has also been for me, at times, a pain reliever, a stomach irritant, a metabolic booster (Bengals need exercise!!), and an appetite suppressant/weight loss agent. Like a Bengal cat, a spice like cayenne is not well tolerated by every person. Now, after some time with my Bengal Cayenne (and more recently his brother Cajun), I do occasionally get adventurous with spicier foods in my Southern travels. To locals, my choices are still relatively timid. But after many years of enjoying Southern food, I now view the role of cayenne pepper a little differently, and maybe someday I can make a Bengal-like leap to the next level.
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