A balanced diet right from child hood is a pre-requisite for preventing many of the modern day metabolic diseases. Realization about this truth invariably dawns on people during later stages of life when in spite of high purchasing power many 'good' foods have to be avoided to prevent life-threatening health complications.in diet planning, stress is invariably laid on main stream foods like cereals, pulses, diary products, edible oils, meat, fish and poultry products and fruit and vegetables. Daily requirement of calories, proteins, fiber and micro nutrients are derived from these food materials and national and international recommendations for ideal diets are widely disseminated for maintaining good health amongst different age groups and genders. Where do the spices come into picture when balanced diets are designed? It is true that spices are not considered as a source of any major nutrient and therefore do not find a place in the basket of foods considered for designing a diet, their main role being perceived as enriching the prepared foods with flavor only.
Spices and herbs are increasingly being recognized more for their unique properties in boosting health rather than as a part of food system and many are touted as pharmaceutics that confer different benefits to the consumers. All spices are characterized by their distinct aroma and taste and those which are strongly odoriferous and olfactory, are shunned by populations in the west. Major spices like black pepper, red chilli, ginger, cardamom and turmeric have established as an integral part of the diets in Asia, South America and Africa where their culinary aspects are more valued and any health benefits become incidental. The much maligned Indian curry preparations, though have strong flavors due to presence of spices like chilli, coriander, cumin, turmeric, asofoetida, etc, are increasingly gaining acceptance all across the world and they are bound to confer many health benefits if regularly consumed.
Chilli, a colorful and pungent spice liked in many tropical countries in Asia and South America has now been found to have a role other than its sensory effect. With a history of more than 5000 years, its use has been extensive in older civilizations which recognized its health value much before the modern man could perceive. Besides being rich in nutrients like carotenoids like beta carotene, lutein, violaxanthine and neoxanthine, it also has the red pigments of ketocarotenoid nature such as capsanthine, capsorubin and cryptocapsin and capsaicinoids like capsaicin and dihydrocapsaicin. Hot peppers stimulate saliva and overcome loss of appetite.Regular consumption is known to reduce risk of thrombolism and lower liver and serum lipids in humans, a trait much valued to day. Recently its role in in improving control of insulin levels after eating and reducing blood sugar levels has been established and it is inferred that capsaicin may be responsible for this phenomenon. Capsaicin has been known to inhibit the growth of fat cells and prevent maturation of adipocytes resulting in decreased levels of fat in tissues and the blood. Capsaicin also has the ability to inhibit arthritis and pancreatic cancer, as reported by earlier studies. The demonstrable effect of chilli can be seen even at a low level of 33 mg of capsaicin per 30 gm of a preparation consumed for 3 weeks. Chilli meals probably result in lower c-peptide and insulin secretion and higher hepatic clearance of insulin. These unique properties may become important in future management of diabetes and obesity.
Though there are other phytochemicals in chilli, most studies are confined to the effect of capsaicin on humans. Commercially, products like oleoresin paprika, oleoresin capsicum and oleoresin red pepper are available from the spice extractive industry and it should be interesting to know which of these three extracts has maximum benefits if regularly consumed. Even the ambiguity regarding the relative effectiveness of green chilli, high capsaicin chilli and high color chilli needs to be resolved for evolving guidelines to the consumers. There is also the synthetic versions of capsaicin like N-Vanillyl nonamide available in the market and whether they also have the same effect as natural chilli, should be elucidated. It is time that Indian food scientists devote for more attention on these aspects on a priority to put chilli on a high pedestal, which it richly deserves.