Consider the bell pepper: loaded with antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins, it also provides protein and fiber. However, most importantly, bell peppers pack a punch of sweet, fresh flavor guaranteed to liven up any dish while adding few calories.
Peppers were cultivated for centuries in South and Central America before their “discovery” by European explorers. Bell peppers, part of the Capsicum annuum species, likely first emerged in Mexico and northern Central America. After Christopher Columbus carried peppers back to Europe in the late fifteenth century, they eventually gained widespread popularity.
However, at first, many western European areas valued peppers mostly for their ornamental qualities or as medicinal plants.
Peppers Are Not the Same as Pepper
When Columbus brought dried peppers back to Europe, Europeans were only familiar with the pepper spice. When they tasted the dried peppers from the New World, they found them even hotter than the black pepper they knew. For them, if something was hot, it was peppery—and so they christened the new arrival “pepper” as well.
However, pepper and peppers are totally unrelated. The spice known as pepper is the dried fruit of a completely different plant, the Piper nigrum vine, which is native to Asia.
A Capsicum Is a Capsicum
Bell peppers all come from the same species, Capsicum annuum. This species also includes poblano, cayenne, jalapeño, piquin, and serrano peppers. However, just as bell peppers were cultivated differently from their spicier siblings, they were bred to display a variety of colors and shapes. Many cultivars emerged from efforts by growers to develop specific qualities, including different colors.
The other factor in bell pepper color is ripeness. Just about every bell pepper starts out green, and through most of the growth process, it remains largely green. However, if left on the plant long enough, many varieties develop into various shades: black, purple, yellow, orange, and red. Many of the green peppers eaten are just unripe versions of colored ones.
The color changes are completely natural. However, the development of color changes more than just its appearance, including nutrient levels. Differently colored bell peppers may vary in:
- Chlorophyll (green peppers)
Modern Bell Peppers
Those years of selective breeding by farmers to develop the now beloved bell pepper exploited a recessive genetic trait, making possible the eventual emergence of peppers lacking capsaicin, the substance that makes other peppers hot. Therefore, although they are part of the capsicum family, the bell pepper’s claim to the family name is somewhat “diluted.”
What Makes Bell Peppers Great?
Food should taste great. Having incredible health benefits along with wonderful flavor is a perfect combination. Bell peppers provide more than just terrific flavor:
- Only 45 calories per 1 cup serving
- Vitamin A and C
- Red varieties contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatories
- Potassium, folic acid, and fiber
- Vitamin B6
On top of all that, bell peppers, especially when presented in an array of colors, are gorgeous!