Pass the Pili Pili!

This week in my political economy of international development class, I noticed that David Landes describes the health benefits of eating hot peppers in his text The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.

“…the stronger spices worked to kill or weaken the bacteria and viruses that promoted and fed on decay. Tabasco and other hot sauces, for instance, will render infected oysters safer for human consumption; at least they kill microorganisms in the test tube (p. 133).”

On all my travels throughout Africa, chili sauce called peri peri (pili pili or piri piri) has been in abundance at nearly every meal. As a fan of spice, I love the stuff – despite the sometimes flushed cheeks and runny nose side effects.

Peri peri is traditionally made from the bird’s eye chili. This particular pepper rates 50,000 to 100,000 on the scoville scale of pepper hotness (at the lower end of a Habanero chili). The pepper became exceedingly popular among Portuguese settlers and entered pop culture due to the South African fast food chain, Nando’s Chickenland.

Most Africans will tell you that peri peri has pro-digestive properties. Considering my relative luck in avoiding traveler’s sickness despite regularly indulging in street grilled goat meat and fried egg-chapattis (aka Rolex for all you Ugandans), I can’t help but agree.

But is there really any truth in this? I couldn’t find much in the way of scientific or medical research to support the hypothesis that eating peppers high in capsaicin (the chemical that produces the heat) would lead to easier digestion or other health benefits. According to Dr. Rob Danoff, who was interviewed by MSN’s health website, hot peppers in a cream form have been shown to have a variety of helpful benefits for chronic health conditions like fibromyalgia, back pain, and arthritis. Thus far no study has shown that hot peppers have preventative properties or actually produce enough heat to speed up the metabolism and ease digestion.

For me, loving the taste and anecdotal digestive properties, I say, “Pass the pili pili!”

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