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Paprika, an orange-red spice made from the fruit of the pepper plant, Capsicum annuum, earned distinction in the spice pantheon when it was adopted as a key ingredient in Hungarian goulash, or beef stew. Before that, the Turks used paprika as a less expensive alternative to pepper. Versatile and flavorful, paprika adds a bright note to many foods and offers some potential health benefits.
Potential heart-health benefits of paprika were demonstrated in a study published in the December 2009 "British Journal of Nutrition." In the animal study, supplementation with capsanthin, a carotenoid antioxidant in paprika, significantly increased levels of high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, the good form of cholesterol. Capsanthin did not increase triglycerides and levels of low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, the bad form of cholesterol. Capsanthin also promoted increased activity of an enzyme involved in production of HDL cholesterol.
Red paprika fruits showed the highest antioxidant content in a comparison study published in the March 2011 "Journal of Food Science." Scientists measured levels of carotenoids, tocopherols -- compounds in the vitamin E family -- vitamin C, capsanthin and flavonoid antioxidants in green and red paprika fruits and paprika leaves. Red paprika fruit contained the highest levels of capsanthin and vitamin C. Paprika leaves contained a variety of antioxidant compounds, including gamma-tocopherol and the carotenoid lutein, which contributes to healthy vision. Researchers concluded that paprika leaves show potential for use in nutritional supplements and for potential pharmaceutical development.
Paprika may promote weight loss, according to an animal study published in the November 2009 "Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry." In the study, animals that consumed a paprika beverage in place of water for six weeks lost significant amounts of weight. Paprika also activated genes that promote production of glycogen -- the liver's short-term storage form of glucose -- increased the use of glucose for energy and lowered cholesterol levels.
Cancer-preventive benefits of capsanthin were demonstrated in a study published in the October 2011 "Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry." In the tissue-culture study, capsanthin and related compounds prevented growth and spread of human pancreatic cancer cells and mouse skin cancer tumors. Further studies are needed to confirm these preliminary results before paprika or its active constituents can be recommended in the prevention or treatment of cancer.
Paprika adds bright color and a rich, somewhat sweet, smoky flavor to stews and meat dishes in Northern Indian and Moroccan cuisine. In addition to Hungarian goulash, European cuisines season beans, fish and vegetables with paprika. You can also use a sprinkle of paprika as a garnish to dress up potatoes, eggs and fish.