I'm waiting for the day McDonald's has habanero burgers on their menu,” says Kevin Crosby, vegetable breeder at the Texas A&M Agricultural Research Station in Weslaco.
And why not?
With everyone, including fast food restaurants, zeroing in on healthier eating, it could become a possibility, and Crosby and his team of scientists could take a lot of credit for it.
With a grant from the USDA and in conjunction with the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center, Crosby is involved in, “Designing Foods for Health.”
“There's no better vegetable than peppers since they're already loaded with high levels of nutrients,” says Crosby. They also rate high on the popularity scale, since Mexican cuisine is a favorite all over the country.
At the research station, 150 varieties are being grown and analyzed.
All peppers, though, are not created equal. It is the scientists' job to identify peppers that already have high levels of beneficial phyto-chemicals, anti-oxidants, vitamin C, and other cancer fighting components and then enhance them. Scientists also study the role of peppers in preventing heart disease. Anti-oxidant flavonoids found in peppers prevent oxidizing of cholesterol that causes plaque in arteries.
Through traditional breeding and selection, utilizing wild varieties and others from all over the world, and by determining the genetic and environmental components, Crosby says it is possible to increase the levels of anti-oxidants 8 to 10 times in some varieties.
The green bell pepper, the most popular on the super market shelf, has the least amount of nutrients and is the most difficult to improve. Sometimes enhancing the nutrient value produces a less attractive vegetable, and consumers are apt to choose a vegetable for eye appeal.
Crosby advises the wax varieties — the banana or the Greek pepper — as the healthiest alternatives. For sweet peppers, choose red or yellow over green. Or buy the poblano, which can be mild or hot. All varieties are best eaten fresh or lightly cooked, since overcooking destroys many of the beneficial ingredients, especially vitamin C. The seeds are beneficial, too, so removing them takes away some of the health benefits.
Capsaicin, responsible for the heat in the pepper, also has nutrient value; scientists are studying just how much. Capsaicin is extremely sensitive to the environment. A pepper producing 2000 Scoville heat units in South Texas may produce 5000 units in desert climates.
Peppers are not an easy or a cheap crop to grow, especially in South Texas where, because of the climate, insects and diseases are prevalent. Pesticides and herbicides are becoming more expensive every year.
Though growers can expect to harvest 15,000 to 20,000 pounds per acre, they may barely break even when it costs $4,000 an acre to grow them. Unlike other crops, government subsidies are not available to growers.
Harvesting is also a problem, since no mechanical harvester has been invented that is gentle enough for the fragile vegetable. Labor is expensive and is often difficult to find, even at $10 an hour. South Texas has lost much of its acreage to urbanization. Pepper production has headed south to Mexico where production is cheaper.
“We will ultimately need to raise the price to allow growers and packers here to make a profit and ensure high quality,” says Crosby.
No matter the price, there will always be pepper aficionados who will seek out the healthiest and tastiest varieties. And maybe some day pepper lovers will put enough pressure on the fast food industry to secure a spot for habanero burgers on the McDonald's menu.