In our previous post we shared some widely held notions regarding health benefits of paprika including the capacity to aid digestion, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects and the ability to control body weight. Unconvinced by anecdotal evidence alone, we set out to separate fact from fiction and put those claims to the scientific test. We found excellent evidence for paprika’s anti-obesity effects and good data for its antioxidant and anti-cancer capacities. We found no evidence for its anti-inflammatory properties (outside of the compound capsaicin, which is found in very low amounts in sweet peppers. It is highest in hot peppers which don’t help us too much when it comes to kids’ meals). Overall though, in addition to the flavor factor, we emerged from the exercise convinced to continue the liberal use of paprika in our kitchen (phew cause I really can’t live without it).
A bit of quick and simple molecular biology before we dive into the evidence. Hot peppers contain a substance called capsaicin which is responsible for the burning sensation in the mouth. It’s also an anti-inflammatory agent, a topical pain reliever and has anti-cancer, anti-oxidant and anti-obesity effects. It does have its share of side effects though, as you can well imagine. Capsinoids from sweet peppers are the non-pungent molecular sisters of capsaicins. Because they share the same chemical structure, capsinoids demonstrate many of the same medical benefits without the side effects.
Inspired by studies earlier in the decade that demonstrated weight and fat loss after a 2 week long intake of sweet red peppers, researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine tested the effect of 6 mg / day of capsinoids in the form of a supplement (concentrated from 1/6th of a pepper or amounting to 1.3 tablespoons of paprika) on 40 women and 40 men over a 12 weeks. Capsinoids were well tolerated and resulted in statistically significant abdominal fat loss compared to a placebo control. Certain genetic variations contributed to whether an individual responded to capsinoids or not, consistent with their ability to function through a molecule called TRPV1 – if I’ve lost you here what I’m basically getting at is that the results made molecular sense.
In a very well designed study, Professor Sheila West from Penn State University and researchers observed significant increases in antioxidant status and decreases in insulin and triglyceride levels in human subjects after a meal laced with a spice blend (containing 30% paprika) versus the same exact meal without spices. We can’t attribute this effect to paprika alone of course but it’s fair to say that the spice blend rendered the meal less ‘fatty’ which is very interesting. The researchers are now exploring the mechanism by which spices may exert this effect. Possibilities include slower passage of the meal through the GI tract and direct inhibition of pancreatic enzymes which normally activate a strong insulin response. As you know, too much insulin makes us fat and keeps us fat. It turns out spices act like the insulin police!
Most studies in the cancer field have focused on capsaicins, which are found in larger amounts in hot peppers. Whilst capsaicin has promising anti-cancer effects, it appears to be a double edged sword. Epidemiological studies have demonstrated a link between diets very high in pungent capsaicin and gastric cancer. Because capsinoids lack pungency and are not irritants to the body, their anti-cancer activities are of greater interest.
Capsiate, one of the main capsinoids in sweet peppers, was shown to block the effects of a molecule called VEGF which is involved in the spread of tumors within the body also known as cancer metastases. Capsiate was shown to bind to an enzyme called Src and block its function, one of which is to allow cancer cells to spread from the site of origin to other organs and tissues. The limitation of this study was that it was conducted in a ‘petri dish’ on cancer cells rather than in a whole animal model but it is provocative nonetheless.
Overall, I was most impressed by the evidence for paprika’s ability to aid in weight management. There are other studies not mentioned here that show antiobesity effects of this spice. And oh does it elevate the flavor profile of most dishes too! An absolute win win.
MOROCCAN LENTIL SOUP
6 months+, Toddler, Kid, Adult
Lentils are one of the best foods for heart health – a large study following 16,000 adults found the regular intake of beans and lentils to be associated with a 82% reduction in mortality from heart disease! Their high soluble fiber, magnesium and folate content is responsible for the cardioprotective effects. Lentils are complex carbohydrates, providing sustained energy without a spike in blood sugar so they are great for weight management without compromising satiety. They are also an excellent source of protein, iron and B vitamins. Here they come together with whatever veggies you have in your kitchen (carrots, zucchini, celery, eggplant, fennel, sweet or regular potato, spinach, kale are all good options) and an aromatic combination of paprika, cinnamon, cumin and coriander to produce a warming and satisfying one pot meal for the family table.
3 adult or 4 toddler servings
1/2 cup green lentils soaked for 1-3 hrs
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 onion finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped or grated ginger
1/2 sweet potato peeled and diced
1 carrot peeled and diced
Handful spinach or kale finely chopped
1/2 fennel bulb diced
1 small eggplant peeled and diced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3 cups chicken, vegetable stock or water
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Salt to taste (optional)
Bread for dipping
In a large pot, warm the oil on medium high heat. Add the onion and ginger and sauté for 5 minutes until translucent. Add the veggies, lentils and stock. Bring to a boil, lower to a simmer and cook with lid on for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the spices and continue cooking on a very low flame for another 10-20 minutes until the lentils are cooked through and soft. Add more liquid if the mixture starts to dry out. Add salt to taste if you like and serve garnished with parsley. Puree for babies or serve as is with crusty bread to toddlers, kids and adults.