I have wonderful memories of spending summers at a rustic cottage on tiny Pleasant Lake in Michigan with my aunt Lila and my Uncle Gigi D’Augistino, back when I was a child in the 30s. Gigi loved his red wine and would sprinkle dried red peppers generously over his pasta. He would explain that his two doctors constantly gave him conflicting advice. Dr. Gigante, our family’s traditional Italian-trained doctor, would tell Gigi that if he drank one or two glasses of red wine with every meal and partake of the capsicum pepper he would live a long and healthy life. His modern American doctor told him that unless he cut out the wine and pepper he would surely die of stomach cancer. Both doctors turned out to be right. He died of stomach cancer back around 1965 I would guess at the age of 79, living a long life for back at that time.
Back in the 30s, health effects of red wine and hot peppers only existed in oral folk medicine. There were no biomolecular theories of what these substances might do, animal experiments or clinical trials. It was enough for Dr. Gigante to say “Red wine and hot peppers will aid your digestion and might help you live longer.” Now of course we know about the polyphenols like resveratrol that exist in red wine and have a fairly good picture of how some of them limit inflammation, control apoptosis, fight cancers, affect “longevity genes,” and so forth. A conflict about the longevity effects of wine still exists (see this post) but without any doubt red wine contains biochemical ingredients that are definitely health-promoting and potentially life-extending.
So much for red wine. Now how about the red peppers? It appears that a similar story exists. Capsicum, the main ingredient in hot peppers, apparently can induce apoptosis in cancer cells (ref)(ref). The American doctor back in the 30s was telling Gigi the opposite of what was right about his pepper habits and cancer risk. “It has been shown to exert biological activities (anticarcinogenic, antimutagenic and chemopreventive) in many cancer cell lines(ref).” Red peppers are turning out to be hot stuff for cancer prevention. Oh, a final note for any of you worrying about end-burns. “There is no scientific evidence that a spicy meal based on red hot chili pepper may worsen hemorrhoidal symptoms and, therefore, there is no reason to prevent these patients from occasionally enjoying a spicy dish if they so wish.(ref)”
Hmm. I am yearning for a good plate of pasta with meat sauce sprinkled with red peppers tonight!