- Bell peppers (Capsicum annuum), also known as sweet peppers, are popular culinary items but, unlike other pepper varieties, have a low heat rating.
- Peppers add a distinctive taste and range of color to a wide variety of recipes from numerous cultures.
- The United States produces an impressive amount of bell peppers annually, approximately 1.6 billion pounds, however the nation imports about 35% of the total amount to meet consumer demand.
- California, Florida, and Georgia are the top pepper producing states and China is the top global producer.
Peppers belong to the Solanaceae (nightshade family), which includes several cultivated crops such as the tomato, eggplant, potato, and petunia. The scientific name of bell peppers is Capsicum annuum, which are characterized by their smooth, glossy exterior of green, red, yellow, purple, or orange colors. While bell peppers are classically considered a non-starchy vegetable, botanical definition classify them a fruit. Pungent (spicy) peppers share the same genus and species, although bell peppers are not bred for their capsaicin content, which is why some cultivated varieties (cultivars) are called sweet peppers. It is hypothesized that the center of origin for Capsicum is Bolivia, whereas non-pungent pepper varieties are said to have originated from Central America and southern Mexico. Today, bell pepper production occurs all over the world; the U.S. ranks 5th in total production. The top producing countries, listed in descending order, are China, Mexico, Turkey, and Indonesia. India is the top producer of pungent peppers.
Information specific to jalapeño peppers is available at https://fsi.colostate.edu/jalapeno-peppers.
Foodborne Illness Outbreaks
Fresh peppers may encounter contaminated water, soil, and/or equipment during production, harvest, and post-harvest putting them at risk for microbial contamination; however, few foodborne illness outbreaks have been attributed to specifically to bell peppers. Most pepper-associated outbreak have been linked to hot peppers as described below.
Between April 16 and August 11, 2008, fresh hot peppers were linked to an outbreak that led to 1,442 illnesses, 286 reported hospitalizations, and two reported deaths. Infection were reported across 43 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada, wherein Texas and New Mexico had that highest number of ill persons (559 and 115, respectively). Investigation into the outbreak found both jalapeno peppers and serrano peppers as sources of Salmonella Saintpaul contamination, with jalapenos as the major vehicle for transmission. Traceback identified that peppers contamination likely occurred on the farm, possibly due to irrigation water, however product-tracing efforts were limited by product and shipment documentation. No recall was issued in response to the outbreak.
Since 2010, Salmonella spp. were identified as the source of an outbreak in eight recalls involving crushed red hot peppers, which are often a stealth component in multi-ingredient dishes. A total of 272 individuals were infected with Salmonella Montevideo and an additional 11 individuals were infected with Salmonella Senftenberg. Among these individuals, no deaths and 52 hospitalizations were reported. Testing revealed black and red pepper used in salami products by Daniele International, Inc as the source of the outbreak, leading to a recall in late January 2010. Additional recalls were issued by Wholesome Spice crushed red pepper and Mincing Overseas Spice Company
A Salmonella outbreak in 2016 in fresh hot peppers occurred between May 6 and July 9, where 32 people were sickened and eight hospitalized across nine states (TX to MN). Investigation using foodborne illness questionnaires identified guacamole and salsa as the common food exposure among interviewed patients. Further open-ended interviews revealed that 14 of 18 patients reported eating or could have possibly eaten hot peppers at restaurants or in their home. Traceback investigation to the source of the hot peppers did not identify a single source farm or contamination of the peppers.
Bell peppers may be grown in fields, greenhouses, or high tunnels. The crop is most productive in a sunny location with a long growing season, with day temperatures between 75° and 85°F and night temperatures between 50° and 60°F. Plants are generally planted 8–16 inches apart. The soil is prepared before the crop is directly sown; two weeks before the average last frost date or transplanted into the field after the threat of frost has passed. In order to help create the organic-rich, well-drained soil environment conducive to pepper production, it is best to incorporate 2–4 inches of well-composted organic matter into the top six inches of the soil profile. Maintaining soil organic matter at 3–5% helps promote soil structure, moisture content, good aeration, and drainage. These components help promote a healthy relationship between the root, soil, and water.
Meeting the fertility needs of a pepper crop is essential. Applying 75–125 lbs per acre of nitrogen (lower bound for dark soils and higher bound for lightly colored soils), 150 lbs/acre of phosphorous, and 200 lbs/acre of potassium is advisable when a soil test indicates a medium fertility level for peppers. Both certified-organic and conventional management fertility inputs are able to meet the crop’s needs.
Green manure crops such as soybeans, sweet clover, Sudan grass, and a peas/oats mixture are cultivated the same season as peppers. Before the green manure crop reaches maturity, it is plowed under to provide a reserve of nutrients for the pepper crop. Soil amendments of animal origin (manures) serve as a good source of nitrogen, and they are one of the best ways to maintain organic matter. Fresh manure may be applied in the fall, while decomposed manure should be applied in the spring. The rate of application of animal manure varies with crop needs, land usage, and the animal source. Other common manure and organic fertilizing sources include dried chicken manure, dried cattle manure, blood meal, bone meal, and fish emulsion.
Peppers under conventional management may receive an organic and/or inorganic salt-based fertilizer input. Many growers rely on urea and ammonium nitrate to meet their crop’s nitrogen needs. Additionally, diammonium phosphate provides nitrogen and phosphorous to the crop, and single and triple superphosphate serve as phosphorus fertilizer inputs.
Pepper plants are most productive when their roots are in a moist, well-drained soil environment. Providing consistent moisture throughout the growing season is critical, especially during flowering, fruit set, and fruit expansion periods. Peppers, like many other solanaceous crops, are vulnerable to water stress during anthesis because it leads to poor pollination of its flowers. In addition, pepper fruit is susceptible to cracking when there are dramatic changes in soil moisture. Options for irrigating a pepper crop include furrow irrigation, overhead sprinkler irrigation, and drip irrigation. The drip irrigation method for delivering water is a common practice in pepper production because of its water conservation ability. Many pepper crops are also under plasticulture, which refers to a cultivation technique of combining drip tape (drip irrigation) with a plastic mulch on top of the bed. The plastic mulch conserves soil moisture and reduces competition from weeds. A 30” bed top is standard in vegetable production.
Pepper fruit reaches maturity on average about 35–45 days after flowering. This is dependent on daily temperatures and cultivar selection. Bell peppers are harvested by hand when they are full, firm, and of desired color. A small-acreage market grower could expect to spend about 16 hours a week laboring during harvest. The bell pepper harvest period lasts for 4–6 weeks on average where harvesting may occur two to four times during the season.
Peppers are placed into bins in the field during harvest. Peppers should be cooled after harvest to reduce field heat that can continue ripening and reduce shelf life. After harvest, they are delivered to the packinghouse. Once they arrive, they are dry-dumped onto a sloped and padded conveyor belt, where dry brushes dust off soil from the fruit. Unlike many crops, a water-cleaning step is not common with peppers. Peppers are then graded, sorted, and packed by hand or by a machine. Finally, the peppers are placed into cardboard boxes and the boxes are stacked on to a pallet. Full pallets go into a forced-air cooling room where a fan circulates chilled air around the boxes. This cooling system helps chill the bell peppers and remove field heat quickly. On average, peppers will retain a good quality for two to three weeks after harvest if stored at 90-95% humidity and 47º-55ºF.
The top states for bell pepper production in descending order are California, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, New Jersey, Michigan, and New York. The total bell pepper production supply in 2017 was 1.6 billion pounds. Approximately 98.5% of this amount was produced by the aforementioned states. Still, domestic pepper production has not been able to keep up with consumption; of the total 2.23 billion pounds consumed in the U.S., 35% consist of imported peppers. A majority (72%) of bell pepper imports to the U.S. are sourced from Mexico. A key role in pepper distribution across the United States is market timing; California ships its field-grown peppers between April to December, peaking during summer months. Florida ships its field-grown peppers from October to the following July and peaks during the spring months. Greenhouse-grown bell peppers are available year-round. Exports of bell peppers from the U.S. are significantly lower than imports, with approximately 256 million pounds being exported in 2016. Bell peppers from the U.S. are primarily exported to Germany, Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom.
Bell peppers are not currently listed on USDA’s Produce Point of Origin Database.
As with all produce, peppers should be washed well in water before preparing. Peppers may have a food-grade wax applied to reduce moisture loss and prevent bruising during shipping and storage. In general, peppers have a fairly short shelf life of two to three weeks. For best quality, peppers should be properly stored and eaten within one to two weeks. Cool, humid conditions help ensure maximum quality during storage. However, peppers are susceptible to chilling injury and should not be stored below 35°F.
Bell peppers are commonly sold as green, yellow, orange, or red. Red bell peppers are sweeter than green bell peppers because they sweeten as they ripen; green bell peppers are unripe colorful peppers. Common commercially produced cultivars include Aladdin, Aristotle-X3R, Wizard-X3R, Brigadier, Double up, Telestar, and Polaris. Still, consumers should not be surprised to see new hybrids available because pepper cultivars are always under development. For example, the bi-color ALOHA™ pepper, developed by Mastronardi Produce, has overlapping red and yellow stripes. Peppers are consumed fresh and in processed products.
The per capita consumption of bell peppers was 11.4 pounds in 2017, a six percent increase from 2015. Peppers can be eaten raw, roasted, grilled, or added to a variety of dishes. Common dishes with bell peppers include garden salads, toppings on pizza, stuffed peppers, in salsa or chutneys, and sliced peppers served as a snack with dip. Drying, freezing, and pickling peppers are the most effective ways to preserve peppers after the growing season is over.
Regardless of color, bell peppers have the same amounts of macronutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. One medium bell pepper provides approximately 25 Calories, six grams carbohydrates, no fat, and 1 gram of protein. Bell peppers can differ by color in their amounts of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Green peppers provide 80mg of vitamin C per 3oz serving, whereas yellow, orange and red peppers provide 184mg per 3oz serving. The average one-cup serving of peppers contains 117 mg of vitamin C, which is twice the amount in a typical orange.
In addition, bell pepper colors vary in their amounts of carotenoids. Carotenoids are a plant pigment with that support eye function and anti-inflammatory properties. Carotenoids found in all colored varieties of bell peppers provide precursory forms of vitamin A as beta-carotene, that is then synthesized into the bioactive form of vitamin A. Red peppers have the highest concentration of carotenoids, followed by orange, yellow, and green peppers. Both red and orange peppers have an abundance of other bioactive carotenoids, including lutein and zeaxanthin. Lutein and zeaxanthin both constitute components of the macular pigment and are crucial in maintaining eye health. In addition to these properties, pepper’s carotenoids have been suggested to be cardioprotective and act in reducing chronic inflammation and LDL-c oxidation, hallmarks of atherosclerosis.
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