This summer veggie can help you cool down — and live longer

Beat the heat this summer by cooling down with this very unlikely summer vegetable. It goes great in homemade salsa, a colorful salad, or bowl of gazpacho. And research shows it not only helps to cool you down, but live longer as well.

I’m talking about diced hot chili peppers.

I’ll tell you all about the current scientific research on chili peppers in a moment, but first let’s back up and look at their origins in ancient MesoAmerica…

Hot peppers originated in the area known today as Mexico, Central America, South America — or simply “Latin America.” In Mexico, “chile” is the traditional spelling of the pepper. “Chili” is the Anglicized form used in Asia and Europe.

In the U.S., we use two variations…

“Chile” usually refers to a specific type of hot pepper. And “chili” refers to generic spice mixtures or dishes containing hot peppers. For example, chili powder is a ground spice used in stews with meat and tomatoes — such as chili or chili con carne (literally, chile peppers with meat).

When it comes to chili peppers, the differences don’t stop with the spelling…

International food traditions

When I first began traveling the world to study traditional cultures, I noted something that seemed like a paradox at first…

The hotter the climate — and the closer you got to the equator — the spicier they prepare their foods.

So, it makes sense that chili peppers originated from the Americas. From there, hot peppers spread to South and Southeast Asia, including South China (with some of the spiciest Hunan and Szechuan cooking on the planet).

Spanish explorers actually brought back sweet and hot peppers to Europe after their trips to MesoAmerica in the 1500s. But spicy foods didn’t catch on in Spain or other parts of western Europe — except for the hottest parts of southern Italy.

The spiciest pepper I’ve ever tasted came from a fresh branch of tiny peppers at a restaurant in Bangkok where I dined in December 1976.

Of course, in South and Southeast Asia, they also cook spicy curry with coriander, cumin, and turmeric (containing curcumin). They often add red chili pepper for added flavor and heat.

On the other hand, Europeans and North Americans don’t have a tradition of preparing spicy foods.

My first exposure to spicy foods came from my father’s side of the family, who originated from Italy. My father loved eating hot peppers. But my Uncle Mike (Michele) took the prize. He could never get them hot enough at the market, so he grew his own.

I remember when it was time to sit down to Sunday dinner, Uncle Mike would go out to his backyard to pick fresh peppers — for maximum potency. He then added them to his pile of pasta and ate until he broke out in a sweat.

Uncle Mike enjoyed this tradition even at the height of the summer. (During winter, he kept his home-grown peppers stored in olive oil in jars.) And, it turns out he was on to something…

Why hot peppers cool you down

Chili peppers and naturally spicy foods, surprisingly, help you stay cool in hot weather because they make you sweat.

You see, sweat glands release fluid onto the skin. From there, the water evaporates, creating the physical phenomenon of “cooling by evaporation.” The hot water molecules escape into the air, taking their heat energy with them.

While most people associate chili peppers’ heat with their seeds, it’s actually the capsaicin in the peppers that makes you sweat. And you find the highest concentration of it in the ribs and connective tissues (the white flesh) of the pepper. When you dice a pepper, the seeds inside get coated with capsaicin, leading some to believe the heat comes from the seeds.

Of course, as I mentioned above, capsaicin does more than help keep you cool as the temperature rises…

Live long and spicy

Eating chili peppers with capsaicin helps reduce inflammation, which is the root of joint pain and many chronic diseases. And, according to some new research, chili peppers may even help you live longer…

Researchers at the University of Vermont analyzed dietary and lifestyle data on more than 16,000 people and followed them for up to 23 years.

Overall, chili pepper eaters drank, smoked, and ate more meat than their peers. But they had fewer heart attacks and strokes and lived much longer than their peers.

Of course, that finding didn’t surprise me one bit, as research shows capsaicin protects against atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, and obesity — all conditions related to inflammation.

It’s just another one of Nature’s ingenious paradoxes that hot chili peppers can help keep you cool and reduce chronic inflammation.

So, this summer, put this ingenious paradox to work for you by including chili peppers in your meals a few times a week. You can sprinkle them into salads, soups, and marinades. Or they make a great topping for chicken, burgers, or sausages hot off the grill.