The bell pepper is one of the most popular cultivars of Capsicum annuum, with the alternative popular name of sweet pepper. Bell peppers are in turn found as cultivars with various colors, such as orange, green, white, purple red or yellow. The term sweet pepper groups not only bell peppers but also other pepper types that are not spicy.
The bell pepper is a plant originally native to Central America, especially Mexico. Spanish and Portuguese explorers discovered it in the 16th and 17th centuries and carried this useful species all over the world. The bell pepper is one of the most important legumes today and it is widely cultivated all over the world.
Many different pepper colors exist but green, yellow, orange and red are the most common. However, varieties with other colors are also found on the market, for example white, dark purple, brown or even lavender. Young bell pepper fruits are generally green but can also be purple or yellow. Most varieties of green bell peppers turn red when fully ripe. There is also a variety named Permagreen that stays green even after it becomes ripe. By harvesting bell peppers before they fully ripen, it is possible to produce fruits with mixed color. The skin color also influences the taste, with red bell peppers being the sweetest, green ones the most bitter and yellow or orange somewhere in between. Storage and growing factors can also influence the actual taste of bell peppers. If they are allowed to become ripe on the plant, with full sun exposure, bell peppers will be sweeter than the ones harvested early that only mature completely while in storage.
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The name of the cultivar comes from the specific shape resembling a bell, which is different from the one of other capsicum species. Bell peppers also have a thick flesh, with crunchy texture. However, the main difference from other peppers is the taste. Unlike chillies, bell peppers are either sweet or just mildly pungent. They are not used as a spice in cuisine, but rather as a normal vegetable that is suited for almost any recipe.
The structure of bell peppers is robust, with a layer of flesh resembling a cube that protects a number of small seeds in the middle, with a round and flat shape. The central core, known as a placenta, serves as an attachment point to these seeds. The harvest period is variable and depends on local tastes. When picked young, almost all peppers are green, even if later they would develop other colors. The final color can be green, yellow, orange, red or purple and only becomes visible at maturity, depending on the cultivar's genes.
Like most vegetables, bell peppers are full of healthy vitamins and minerals. This is to be expected, given their intense color and specific taste. Green peppers are extremely rich in vitamin C and provide twice the amount found in oranges. This key vitamin has many useful effects; it boosts the immune system response, protects against a disease known as scurvy and has a strong antioxidant effect, eliminating dangerous free radicals. It is also beneficial to the heart, since it acts as an anti-inflammatory agent on the arteries, preventing the accumulation of cholesterol as well as diabetes. Bell peppers also provide generous amounts of magnesium, copper, thiamine, niacin and folate.
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All peppers, including the very hot types, are a good source of vitamin C. This is a key nutrient that plays the most important role in blood coagulation. Scientists have discovered that people with degraded bone density have a lower level of this vitamin, so it might help in the fight against osteoporosis. Peppers are one of the few vegetables that provides more vitamin K when saut?d than in the raw form.
Bell peppers are unusually rich in carotenoids and supply over 30 different varieties. These include lutein, zeaxanthin, alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, lycopene and cryptoxanthin. These phytonutrients are actually the reason for the bright color of many vegetables, for example yellow, orange and red peppers. All carotenoids are very important for vision because they prevent harmful blue light from entering the eyes and protect them from diseases.
Compounds from the carotenoid group are also strong antioxidants that decrease the risk of cancer by eliminating dangerous free radicals. These are very reactive oxygen atoms that are produced by the human metabolism and can combine with various cell molecules with unpredictable results. Fully ripe bell peppers are richer in antioxidants than unripe ones, due to the higher amount of carotenoids. Another element provided by bell peppers that can prevent some forms of cancer is sulphur.
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Another key nutrient that increases in concentration with ripening is vitamin C. Bell peppers provide large amounts of this vitamin, which can make the immune function more effective. Bell peppers are great for health, since a single cup of this vegetable provides 157% of the daily recommended amount.
Vitamin B6 plays a major role in the synthesis of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain, which are very important mood balancers. Bell peppers supply a significant amount of this vitamin, being a natural counter for depression. These vegetables are a healthy way to regulate your sleep as well. The same vitamin B6 increases the production of melatonin, a compound used to maintain the internal clock and ensure a regular sleep schedule.
Bell peppers have a very low amount of calories and fats, which makes them ideal in weight loss diets. One cup of peppers supplies just 29 calories and 1 gram of fat, which is just the fat amount needed for the storage of the fat-soluble nutrients in their composition. Due to the low calories count, bell peppers are ideal snacks between meals.
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Capsaicin is a very useful nutrient because it reduces the level of harmful cholesterol in the body, preventing the diseases caused by this toxin. Spicy peppers are a lot richer in capsaicin than bell peppers, but these also provide a decent dose.
Bell peppers are known as good anti-inflammatory and painkiller vegetables. Several compounds in their composition are effective against chronic pain, in particular capsaicin but also the vitamins C and K, due to their anti-inflammatory effects.
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The red peppers are also extremely rich in beta-carotene, a chemical with valuable effects as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. They provide several other useful carotenoids and other phytochemicals.
Bell peppers are very easy to cook. In order to retain the entire content of flavonoids, as well as the sweet and fruity taste, a brief period of exposure to low heat is enough.
Other compounds inside bell peppers are also needed for human health. Some types of cancer can be prevented for example by the sulphur in their composition. Peppers also provide vitamin B6, which helps the body in many ways, such as a better cell regeneration rate and a healthy nervous system. Other key nutrients supplied are enzymes like lutein, which acts as an antioxidant inside the eye delaying the macular degeneration that comes with age, as well as cataracts.
Like most vegetables, peppers are a rich source of minerals. Some of the most important are magnesium, selenium, manganese, iron, copper, zinc and potassium. Superoxide dismutase, the strongest antioxidant enzyme produced by the body, uses manganese in its structure. This enzyme also needs selenium, a trace element that functions as a co-factor for it and strengthens its action.
Bell peppers are widely cultivated and readily available in fresh form in markets during the entire year. The best fruits are the ones that are freshly harvested, with a heavy and firm flesh and a bright color. Soft peppers with a pale green skin that lacks luster should be avoided. Damaged stems are a sign that peppers are not fresh and the ones with bruised or spotted skin are a bad choice.
Bell peppers can be stored for up to 3-4 days inside a plastic bag in the refrigerator, which will keep them fresh. However, longer storage in the fridge will damage them due to the effects of low temperature.