The Scoville scale, which measures the level of spicy heat, rates jalapeno peppers at 2,500 to 5,000, but they can go up to 10,000. Even though that’s mild compared to cayenne pepper at 30,000 units, jalapenos have such a range that it’s best to make your first taste a small one. Jalapeno peppers provide iron and vitamins A and K, but one of the biggest benefits comes from the ingredient that makes them hot: capsaicin.
As an antioxidant, vitamin C protects cells from free radicals -- the byproducts of vital biochemical processes. If they’re not neutralized, free radicals damage cells and cause inflammation. In the immune system, vitamin C stimulates the production of white blood cells that eliminate bacteria while also protecting the cells from toxins. It's needed for the production of collagen, which is the connective tissue that supports muscles, tendons and organs, and it is also critical for maintaining firm skin. One jalapeno pepper has 17 milligrams of vitamin C. Men should get 90 milligrams daily, but women only need 75 milligrams, so that means men get 19 percent of the recommended daily intake and women gain 23 percent. If you’re pregnant or breast-feeding, you should get more vitamin C each day. Pregnant women need 85 milligrams, while women who are breast-feeding need 120 milligrams daily.
Plants contain chemicals called phytochemicals that aren’t essential nutrients but provide other important health benefits. Jalapeno peppers contain two phytochemicals -- the flavonoids luteolin and quercetin -- that function as antioxidants, reduce systemic inflammation and kill some viruses, according to the University of Colorado. Flavonoids may lower your risk of developing some types of cancer by inhibiting the growth of cancer cells and by stimulating their removal from the body. Luteolin stops the growth of colon cancer cells by blocking the proteins that initiate cell growth, according to research published online at BioMed Central in January 2012.
Capsaicin is the chemical compound that’s responsible for the “heat” or characteristic hot, burning sensation caused by chili peppers, including jalapenos. Capsaicin stimulates dilation of blood vessels, which lowers blood pressure. It also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory abilities and may prevent cancer by killing cancer cells. Capsaicin relieves pain by depleting the chemicals that send pain signals to the brain. It’s used in topical creams to relieve pain from arthritis and nerve damage, to reduce lower-back pain and to treat itching and inflammation from psoriasis.
Many sources suggest removing the seeds because they contain much of the capsaicin, but the seeds are harmless; it’s the white “placenta” that bears and attaches the seeds to the pepper that contains the capsaicin. Whether you keep the seeds in or take them out, wear gloves or be careful not to touch your eyes or face before washing your hands. Jalapenos are classically added to salsa and cornbread, but they’re more versatile once you’re comfortable cooking with them. Try roasting them with potatoes or other vegetables, either alone or with chicken. They can be stuffed with any combination of sausage, ground meat and different types of cheese. They also make a flavorful addition to chili, muffins and rice.
- USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory: Jalapenos, Raw
- Institute of Medicine: Dietary Reference Intakes
- USDA: Database for the Flavonoid Content of Selected Foods, Release 3
- BioMed Central: Plant Flavonoid Luteolin Blocks Cell Signaling Pathways in Colon Cancer Cells
- Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center: Capsaicin
- University of California, Los Angeles: Chili Peppers -- Some Like It Hot
Sandi Busch received a Bachelor of Arts in psychology, then pursued training in nursing and nutrition. She taught families to plan and prepare special diets, worked as a therapeutic support specialist, and now writes about her favorite topics – nutrition, food, families and parenting – for hospitals and trade magazines.