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September, 2011

The Color of Peppers

By Dennis Linden

Recently I overheard a fellow consumer in the produce department of my local market explain to a companion that all peppers start off green, and that the various colors being offered are simply different stages of ripeness

Jalapeno Chile Peppers

I started to volunteer a correction to this statement, but I realized that I wasn’t exactly sure of the whole story myself, having heard the same color = ripeness explanation elsewhere. Admittedly, whether asked or not, I have shared my fresh produce expertise with strangers when shopping in the past. I guess it’s an occupational habit, which has never been received with annoyance. In fact, I find that the retail produce department is a place of social networking where shoppers readily discuss recipes and the handling of fruits and veggies with their fellow shoppers. Unfortunately this comes with plethora of fact, fiction and downright misinformation that is disseminated by both employees and consumers alike. However, this time I was not so confident about my pepper facts and went back to my office resolved to do some research about the subject.

Interestingly, it was not easy to find a definitive answer to this burning question about the color shades of peppers. I found statements throughout the World Wide Web that were in total contradiction. Like “peppers change from green to yellow, then orange and finally red as they ripen.” Vs “Some varieties stay green when they ripen, while others are green when immature and then change to a different color when they are ready to pick.”
Habanaro Chile Peppers
Let’s start with some pepper basics. All peppers are fruits and ripen just like any other fruit, be it a berry, peach or apple. Each differently hued bell pepper has a unique array of nutritional attributes. Green peppers feature an abundance of chlorophyll, but have much less nutrients than other colored peppers. Yellow peppers are most beneficial to eyesight as they contain more lutein and vitamin-A, which both support the health of the retina of the eye. Orange peppers have more cancer fighting alpha-, beta-, and gamma-carotene. Red peppers are loaded with lycopene and have three times as much vitamin-C than oranges. Hot peppers contain the infamous natural chemical called capsaicin, which is responsible for the heat but does not affect the nutrient of the pepper. For instance, an orange habanero has the same beneficial nutrients as an orange bell pepper; it’s just a much more spicy way of getting the same vitamins! Here’s an interesting factoid that is only slightly off the subject; the heat in chile peppers is a defensive mechanism to protect them from being consumed by mammals, both two and four-legged ones. However birds are not affected at all by the heat and, in fact, are attracted by the bright colors. Just a little something for the next time you are on JEOPARDY.
Red Fresno Chile Peppers
So here’s the bottom line. The conversation that I overheard in my local market was half right; all peppers are green when they first appear on the plant. All peppers do go through a ripening process that sometimes, but not always, includes a color change. That color change is the loss of green chlorophyll, just like what happens to fall leaves. However, unlike deciduous leaves, peppers do not go through a spectrum of colors as they ripen. It is more of a two-color range with a combo of those two colors during the transition. That is, a red pepper starts out green, then develops a hint of red but mostly green, and as the pepper loses more chlorophyll the red replaces it until the fruit is a solid red. This two color transition is the process for all pepper varieties, mild or hot.

So there you have it! I am tempted go back to that same bell pepper display at my local market now, poised to offer the real scoop. Occupational habits can be hard to break!