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The Great Chile Pepper Health Debate PDF Print E-mail
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The Great Chile Pepper Health Debate
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"Bird Pepper" Illustration, 1858If you've read some of the other articles in the Chiles and Health section of the SuperSite, you're probably aware of just how contentious the debates have been, especially when chile peppers are accused of causing health problems like cancer and ulcers.  They don't of course, but the debate about the healing properties versus the "damaging" aspects of chile pods is much older than you think.  As early as 1810, early experts were touting the benefits of Capsicums.

"The use of this and the other species of Capsicum, which have long been employed for culinary purposes, have but lately been adopted as a medicine. Cayenne pepper, which is now much used at our tables, is the fruit of Capsicum baccatum [actually, Capsicum annuum] of Linnaeus, (Bird pepper) and differs not materially in its effects from that of the species here figured, for which it is frequently substituted. In hot climates, particularly in the West Indies, and in some parts of Spanish America, the Capsicum is eaten both with animal and vegetable food in large quantities, and it enters so abundantly into their sauces, that to a person unaccustomed to eat them, their taste is intolerably hot. But in the climates of which the Capsicum is a native, we are told that the free use of it is a salutary practice, being found to strengthen the stomach, assist digestion, and correct that putrescent colliquation of the humours so common in hot climates. As an aromatic of the most acrid and stimulant kind it certainly may be found efficacious in some paralytic and gout cases, or to promote excitement, where the bodily organs are languid and torpid. It has been successfully exhibited in cynanche maligna, and in what by Dr. Mackitrick calls cachexia africana, which he considers as the most frequent and fatal predisposition to disease among negroes. The dose he directs is from six to eight grains." From: Medical Botany, Volume 1, by William Woodville. London: William Phillips, 1810.

Forty-eight years later, American doctors began to support chiles as a medicine.


Capsicum nigrum, Batavia, 1809"Capsicum annuum. From the Greek, kapto, I bite—a biting plant. The best capsicum is obtained from Africa and South America, one province of the latter, Cayenne, giving its name to the article. It can be produced in good quality in the southern States, especially those that lie beyond the southern line of Tennessee. It grows abundantly, and of excellent quality, in the West Indies, where the negroes count it almost a certain remedy for nearly all their maladies. They have no fears of fatal effects from fevers, even the terrible and devastating yellow fever, if they can get a plenty of capsicum. They not only drink a tea of it, but they chew and swallow the pods one after another, as we would so many doughnuts; and never dream that it can do them any injury. Dr. Thomas, of London, who practiced a long time in the West Indies, found cayenne pepper an almost sovereign remedy for yellow fever, and almost every other form of human maladies. There is, perhaps, no other article which produces so powerful an impression on the animal frame, that is so destitute of all injurious qualities. It seems almost incapable of even abuse, for, however great the excitement induced by it, this stimulant prevents that excitement from subsiding so suddenly, as to induce any great derangement of the equilibrium of the circulation. It produces the most powerful impression on the surface, yet never draws a blister; on the stomach, yet never weakens its tone. It is so diffusive in its character, that it never produces any local lesion, or induces permanent inflammation ; yet its counter excitation is of the most salutary kind, and ample in degree. A plaster of cayenne is more efficient in relieving internal inflammation, than a fly blister ever was, yet I never knew it to produce the slightest vesication, though I have often bound it thick as a poultice, on the tenderest flesh, to relieve rheumatism, pleurisy, etc., which, by the aid of an emetic, an enema and sudorifics, it is sure to do. I have thus cured with it, in a single night, cases of rheumatism that had been for years most distressing. Though severe on the tissue to which it is applied, it is so diffusive that it does not long derange the circulation; but, on the contrary, equalizes it. Thus it is not only stimulant, but antispasmodic, sudorific, anti-febrile, anti-inflammatory, depurating and restorative. It is powerful to arrest hemorrhage from the mucous membranes. When the stomach is foul, a strong dose of the powder will excite vomiting, and an enema of it and lobelia and slippery-elm, will relieve the most obstinate constipation. Taken in powder in cold water, it is sure to move, not only the internal canal, but all the splanchnic viscera, as the liver, the kidneys, the spleen and the pancreas, the mesentery, etc."  From: A Synopsis of Lectures on Medical Science., by Alva Curtis, MD. Cincinnati: Moore, Wilstach, Keys & Co., 1858.


And then the nay-sayers took charge.

Capsicum annuum from Kohler's Medicinal Plants"The Capsicum Habit is discussed by Mr. J. H. Hart in the Mirror, a Trinidad paper. He points out that but few people who habitually use capsicum in any form as a condiment, are aware, or will admit, that they are indulging in a habit which is highly pernicious and specially hurtful to the constitution. So fixed does the habit of using "pepper" become that many persons, accustomed to its use, cannot enjoy a meal without their beloved pepper, in one of its many forms. One individual who advanced special arguments as to capsicum being good for digestion, being an appetiser, good for the liver, etc., is now a confirmed dyspeptic*, and a needle-woman who used to consume with her breakfast two or three large capsicums became a chronic dyspeptic, and only obtained relief by abandoning the vegetable. A high official in Trinidad once entered upon a discussion of the virtues of hot pepper, and, like many another converted one, told the story of his conversion. He said that one day he observed a pet monkey very sick, and refusing all offers of food. Thinking to trick him, a "hot pepper," or capsicum, was offered, and, contrary to expectation, was greedily eaten. The monkey got better, and the official was convinced of the virtues of hot peppers. That official, however, become a martyr to dyspepsia. A man or woman may certainly have dyspepsia without being a capsicum eater, and a man may have his food flavoured with capsicum for years without becoming a confirmed dyspeptic, but when capsicum is taken largely and regularly the result is as certain as in the case of the opium or ganja smoker. The evil result of capsicum eating is only recently becoming recognised, and investigations have already shown the pernicious character of the habit. Further investigation will probably prove that many of the ailments of the tropics are actually caused by indulgence in 'hot peppers.' In moderation, of course, capsicum is useful as a condiment, but the habitual or excessive use of it is stated to be sure to result in impaired health and shortening of life." From: Pharmaceutical Journal, Volume 63. Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain. London: J. Churchill, 1899.

And the debate goes on more than one hundred years later.

*Dyspepsia (from the Greek δυσ- dys- and πέψις pepsis "digestion"), also known as upset stomach or indigestion, refers to a condition of impaired digestion. It is a medical condition characterized by chronic or recurrent pain in the upper abdomen, upper abdominal fullness and feeling full earlier than expected when eating. It can be accompanied by bloating, belching, nausea, or heartburn.

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