This old, cultivated vegetable offers more than just nutrition

In anticipation of Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day, let’s continue looking at foods from the Americas that transformed the world’s nutrition, health, cuisine, and economies.

Today, we’ll look at another food Christopher Columbus brought back with him to Europe from the “New World”…


Not what Columbus was looking for, but wonderful nonetheless

Columbus knew the Earth was round. But he mistakenly thought that if he crossed the Atlantic Ocean, he would eventually hit the Spice Islands in the East Indies. And he promised his sponsors, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, that he would bring back great riches, including precious, exotic spices.

Of course, Columbus never reached the Spice Islands. He did, however, reach the Americas. And the moment he set foot on dry land, he started asking the “Indians” about native foods. (It’s said that Columbus called the Native Americans “Indians” because he believed he had reached the East Indies. Another interpretation is that he called them un gente in dios, or “a people with God.”)

The Native Americans quickly introduced Columbus to the pepper, one of their oldest cultivated vegetables.

Experts believe that chili peppers and capsicum peppers, like chocolate, originated in the tropical regions of Central or South America. Which makes sense, because, as I discussed yesterday, chocolate and hot peppers were often consumed together.

Of course, before Columbus even arrived on the continent, Native Americans had been consuming peppers for thousands of years. In fact, archeologists have found pepper seeds in ancient Peruvian burials. Peppers were also popular among the Olmec, a tribe that preceded the Aztecs along Mexico’s Gulf Coast between 600 and 100 B.C.

Later in his explorations, Columbus found a “new” kind of pepper on the large island of Hispaniola (now comprising Haiti in the western half and the Dominican Republic in the eastern half), which the natives called aji. And he took samples with him back to Europe, where they easily adapted to new growing conditions. Later, the peppers again adapted to conditions in North America and on other continents.

Some like it sweet and some like it hot

Today, we divide peppers into two main categories: sweet and hot.

When it comes to sweet peppers, there are four main types:

  • Quadrato (box-shaped, 4-sided)
  • Cuore di bue (which literally means, “ox heart”)
  • Pomodoro (small and compressed, means, “golden apple”)
  • Corno (thin and elongated, straight or curved, or “horn”)

I enjoy using sweet peppers to flavor main dishes, soups, and stews. In France, Spain, Italy, Hungary, and Eastern Europe, they stuff pepper “shells” and roast them with mixed ground meats, rice, and other fillings. You can also add sweet peppers to salads and sandwiches. Or, of course, just eat them on their own as a crunchy, healthy snack.

Now, let’s move onto hot peppers…

Today, hot peppers are popular around the world—and especially in Eastern Europe, Spain, Mexico, Central and South America, China, India, Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam.

In Italy, they famously use hot peppers with garlic, pepper, and olive oil to make aromatic oils, vinegars, and grappa. In Russia, Sweden, and elsewhere, they infuse hot peppers in vodka.

You can use hot peppers (fresh, dried, flaked, or ground) to add some “kick” to your dishes—as an alternative to expensive black pepper (Piper nigricans) from Southeast Asia, which Columbus had originally sought.

Capsaicin eases inflammation and pain

It was always interesting to me that people in hotter climates seem to cook more often with hot peppers, which seems counterintuitive. However, an ingredient in hot peppers called capsaicin causes sweating. And sweating cools the skin and the body. So, it makes sense, after all!

Of course, capsaicin also effectively soothes joint pain. Most often, you’ll see it included in topical creams that you apply directly to your joints. The ingredient appears to disrupt the pain signals coming from your sore joints.

But capsaicin can also reach your joints through the blood. So, if you have sore joints, try adding hot peppers to your home-cooked meals. You’ll notice a difference in how you feel—right away and the next morning.

In fact, when I worked with former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop 20 years ago to develop science-based high-quality dietary supplements, I wanted to use capsaicin in a dietary supplement.

And I’ll never forget that frantic phone call I received on my flip-top cell phone (which I still use). I was with my daughter at the riding arena when a young associate of Dr. Koop tried to breathlessly explain to me that we couldn’t use capsaicin in a capsule. He explained the ingredient could only be administered topically, on the surface of the skin.

So I asked him if he’d ever eaten a red pepper or added Louisiana hot sauce to a dish? Because of course you can take capsaicin orally! And it’s very effective in helping to reduce inflammation, the No. 1 cause of joint pain.

In planning out this new line of dietary supplements, Dr. Koop and I actually broke some new ground with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in terms of the approval process and marketing claims. But then, suddenly, on September 11, 2001, the world changed. And Dr. Koop encountered too many difficulties with business funding and marketing agreements that our new line never reached the marketplace.

Of course, some young ninny in the U.S. Congress (who is still young enough to “know it all”) recently referred to the 9/11 tragedy as a day where, “some people did something.” But that day transformed the lives and fortunes of many, including my own.

After that day, Dr. Koop simply went into retirement and enjoyed his remaining time as Emeritus Professor at Dartmouth until his death at age of 98 in February 2013.

So, the world never got a line of supplements from Dr. Koop with me. (But, of course, now I formulate my own line of SmartScience Nutritionals supplements.) And you can still learn all about the natural approaches we studied to thwart inflammation and pain relief in my Protocol For Eliminating Deadly Inflammation. To learn more, or to enroll today, simply click here.