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Power Foods: Bell Peppers

Body+Soul, June 2007

Not so long ago, store-bought bell peppers came in only two shades: green and red. Nowadays you can find them in a rainbow of colors, including ivory, yellow, orange, purple, and brown. And while they all offer that sweetness and crunch, it's the warm-toned peppers -- red, yellow, and orange -- that stand out nutritionally.

Roasted Pepper, Feta, and Basil Bruschetta
Snapper with Bell Pepper Salsa

Health Benefits
Red, yellow, and orange peppers get their good looks, as well as some of their most noteworthy health effects, from plant pigments called carotenoids. These pigments act like sunscreen, protecting the ripening peppers from sun damage. As it turns out, those pigments have a similar safeguarding effect on us. Like other antioxidants, carotenoids also help boost immunity and fight cancer and heart disease. They're valuable for vision as well: Orange peppers are a top source of lutein and zeaxanthin, which guard against cataracts and macular degeneration. In fact, orange peppers contain more zeaxanthin than any other fruit or vegetable (with corn a distant second).

Red peppers supply abundant amounts of beta-carotene, which your body converts to vitamin A, a nutrient crucial for night vision. Perhaps the most surprising nutritional pepper perk is its vitamin C. Just one small red, yellow, or orange pepper gives you up to three times your daily requirement of C (one small orange offers just 53.2 mg compared to red pepper's 209 mg). Even green peppers provide more of this super antioxidant by weight than oranges do. Besides bolstering your immune system, vitamin C helps protect against heart disease and stomach and colon cancers, and it helps heal wounds. Peppers also provide vitamin B6, another immune-supporting nutrient that in addition helps your body use protein and fiber.

Nutrition Breakdown
Per 1 large raw red pepper, approximately 164 grams
Calories: 43 kcal
Fat: 0.49 g
Fiber: 3.4 g = 14 percent of DRI*
Vitamin A: 257 mcg** = 37 percent of DRI*
Vitamin C: 209 mg = 279 percent of DRI*
Folate: 75 mcg = 19 percent of DRI*
Beta-carotene: 2663 mcg**
Lycopene: 505 mcg

* DRI, Dietary Reference Intakes, is based on National Academy of Sciences' Dietary Reference Intakes, 1997 to 2004

** Based on a conversion of 1 retinol activity equivalents (RAEs) = 1 mcg retinol
or 12 mcg beta-carotene

How to Buy
Bell peppers are available year-round, but they're most abundant -- and least expensive -- in early summer, when vegetables are more likely to come from a farm closer to home. Look for firm peppers with taut skins; avoid ones with wrinkles or cracks. To get peppers with thick, juicy walls, choose those that feel heavy for their size. Conventionally grown peppers rank high on the list of pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables, so go organic when you can.

Cooking Tips
Roasted peppers in your fridge are like money in the bank; they hold promise for endless possibilities and culinary upgrades. Use them to up the flavor profile of myriad dishes, from salads to bruschetta to pasta. Once you've roasted them, don't rinse to remove the charred skin or you'll wash much of the flavor down the drain. Instead, after peeling off as much skin as possible with a paring knife, rub or blot away any remaining black patches with a paper towel.

Do You Know? All red, yellow, and orange peppers start out green. The color (and also the taste) changes depending on how long they're allowed to ripen on the vine. It's this extra time and care that makes these brightly hued peppers more expensive than their green counterparts.