Also known as Capsicum annuum grossum and Sweet Pepper.
Like their relatives, the chilli peppers, bell peppers originated in South America with seeds of a wild variety, dating back to 5000 BC. Bell peppers were carried throughout the world by the Spanish and Portuguese explorers who travelled through the world.
Due to the fact that bell peppers are very adaptable plants, being able to be grown in tropical and temperature climates, as well as very versatile foods, their cultivation and adoption into varying cuisines spread rapidly throughout many parts of the world. They have become a staple in central Europe and an integral ingredient in both Mexican and Portuguese cuisines. Pimento and paprika are both prepared from red bell peppers. Currently, the main producers of sweet peppers are China, Turkey, Spain, Romania, Nigeria and Mexico.
Although peppers are available throughout the year, they are most abundant during the months of August and September.
Bell peppers are plump, bell-shaped vegetables featuring either three or four ‘lobes’. There are also other varieties that have a more tapered shape and no distinguishing lobes. They range in size from 2 - 5 inches in diameter, and 2 - 6 inches in length. Inside the thick flesh wall is an inner cavity with seeds and a white, spongy core.
Bell peppers have a slightly watery crunch. Green and purple peppers have a slightly bitter flavour, while the red, orange and yellows are sweeter and almost fruity. Despite their varied palette, all are the same plant, known scientifically as Capsicum annuum, and are members of the nightshade family, which also includes potatoes, tomatoes and eggplant. Bell peppers are not ‘hot’. They contain a recessive gene which eliminates capsaisin, the compound responsible for the ‘hotness’ found in other peppers.
Peppers, whether green, red, orange or yellow, are rich sources of some of the best nutrients available - they are excellent sources of vitamin C and beta-carotene, two very powerful antioxidants. These antioxidants work together to neutralise free radicals, which are major players in the build up of cholesterol in the arteries that leads to atherosclerosis and heart disease, and can cause nerve and blood vessel damage, the cloudy lenses of cataracts, joint pain and damage, and the wheezing and airway tightening of asthma. By providing these two potent free radical destroyers, bell peppers may help prevent or reduce some of the symptoms of these conditions by working on the source of the problem.
Also useful in treating atherosclerosis and diabetic heart disease are the vitamin B6 and folic acid found in peppers. These two B vitamins are very important for reducing high levels of homocysteine - a substance produced during the methylation cycle (an essential biochemical process in virtually every cell in the body). High homocysteine levels have been shown to cause damage to blood vessels, and are associated with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. In addition to providing the vitamins that convert homocysteine into other beneficial molecules, bell peppers also provide fibre that can help lower high cholesterol levels, another risk factor for heart attack and stroke.
Red peppers are one of the few foods that contain lycopene, a carotenoid whose consumption has been inversely correlated with prostate cancer and cancers of the cervix, bladder and pancreas. Recent studies suggest that individuals whose diets are low in lycopene-rich foods are at greater risk for developing these types of cancers.
The fibre found in peppers can help to reduce the amount of contact that colon cells have with cancer-causing toxins found in certain foods or produced by certain gut bacteria. In addition, consumption of vitamin C, beta-carotene, and folic acid, all found in bell peppers, is associated with a significantly reduced risk of colon cancer.
Sweet red peppers also supply the phytonutrients lutein and zeaxanthin, which have been found to protect against macular degeneration, the main cause of blindness in the elderly.