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Bell and Chili Peppers Profile

By Dan Burden, content specialist, AgMRC, Iowa State University, djburden@iastate.edu.

Revised November 2012 by Diane Huntrods, AgMRC, Iowa State University.

Mild, sweet bell peppers have established themselves as staples in salads and as integral components of almost all sectors of American national and regional cuisine. However, American affection for peppers (Capsicum annum) is not just limited to the established mild peppers. The American "hot food craze" is creating increasing demand and local markets for pungent chili pepper condiment products, locally grown fresh peppers and pepper-related productions or products like festivals, clothing, artwork and publications.

In the last few years, U.S. consumption of all peppers has increased, moving from an average of 15.3 pounds per person in 2005 to 16.4 pounds per person in 2009. During that same time, consumption of bell peppers grew from 9.2 pounds to 9.8 pounds, while chili pepper consumption grew from 6.1 pounds to 6.6 pounds. (ERS 2011)

In 2011, 17.6 million cwt of bell peppers were grown, up from the previous year, while the crop was valued at $684.9 million, also up from 2010. California leads the nation in bell pepper production (8.6 million cwt worth $252.1 million), followed by Florida (4.4 million cwt worth $247.7 million).  (NASS 2012)

According to FAOStat, the United States ranked fifth in green pepper production in 2010. China was, by far, the largest producer, followed by Mexico, Turkey and Indonesia.

The 2011 chili pepper crop totaled 4.8 million cwt, up from a year earlier, and was valued at $146.8 million, also up from 2010. California continued to be the leading producer of chili peppers in 2011; the state produced 2.5 million cwt of chili peppers worth $85.9 million. New Mexico's chili crop climbed to 2.0 million cwt worth $46.7 million.  (NASS 2012)

India was the largest producer of dried chili peppers in 2010, followed by China (FAOStat).peppers 


Peppers are crops that lend themselves to small-scale and part-time farming operations. All pepper plants are generally quite hardy and are easily grown and propagated in gardens. The plants also do very well in container gardens and other non-traditional cropping arrangements. This can help with local marketing during periods of the year when fresh exotic produce is less readily available. In larger production systems, many field operations, such as land preparation, planting and harvesting, can be custom hired, and any equipment owned by the grower can be used for other ornamental plant or vegetable production operations.

A typical field of fresh-market peppers is harvested by hand every week or so over the course of about a month. Most of the crop is sold as mature green peppers, but growers receive a premium for a limited amount of other colors. (For example, red bell peppers are actually the mature stage of green bell peppers that have been allowed to ripen on the vine.) The premium reflects the fact that bright-colored bell peppers (red, yellow, orange, purple, brown and black) are more costly to produce (field losses are higher and yields are lower) than those harvested at the green stage. Shippers apply a food-grade wax to the majority of commercially produced peppers to reduce moisture loss and scuffing during marketing. This can also extend storage life, which under ideal conditions can range up to 3 weeks.

Produced and marketed year round, bell peppers are usually sold as fresh produce. California’s shipping season runs from April to December, with peak volume hitting the market May through July. Florida’s shipments run from October through the following July, with peak volume occurring during March and April. In addition to field-grown peppers, smaller volumes of domestically-produced hothouse bell peppers are also available throughout the year.

Bell and chili peppers are unrelated to the spice pepper plant that produces the ground black pepper commonly found on American tables. The most popular mild peppers are the bell and banana varieties. Types of hot peppers include the jalapenos and habaneros, to name a few of the many varieties.

Bell peppers contain no capsaicin—the compound that gives the kick to chili peppers. They are high in vitamin C (one medium green bell pepper contains 177 percent of the RDA for vitamin C), and as they mature and turn color, the vitamin A content rises by a factor of nine while the vitamin C content doubles. The brighter colored peppers tend to be sweeter than green peppers because the sugar content increases as the pepper matures. Peppers are also excellent sources of dietary fiber and provide small amounts of several other vitamins and minerals.

Pepper pungency is rated in terms of "Scoville heat units." As mentioned above, bell peppers have no capsaicin and are rated at zero on the Scoville heat unit scale of pungency. The popular Jalapeno pepper ranges from 2,000 to 25,000 units, and the Habenero chili pepper is rated as high as I million Scoville units.

The Chile Pepper Institute has identified the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion as the new hottest pepper in the world; the pepper can register as high as 2 million Scoville units. The previous record holder was the Bhut Jolokia pepper.  

Peppers usually are harvested in the immature "green" stage for use in relishes, salads, stuffings and for flavor in many cooked dishes. Many of the very hot chili peppers are picked green or allowed to further mature. They are then bottled in condiment products, are dried, or dried and ground for use as spices or accent food ingredients (paprika, hot pepper oil).

Chili peppers are used in Oriental, Cajun and Southwestern cuisine; are sold as ornamental plants, seeds, seedlings, dried or fresh peppers; or processed into pepper mash for sale to the condiment industry. Many of the chili pepper and ornamental varieties are sold in ristras (dried strings) or in bottles for decorative purposes. Many of the dwarf varieties are hardy ornamental plants with colorful (and often edible) fruit and attractive foliage. Chili peppers are also used to produce food coloring agents. Dyes made from red chile peppers are natural and safe food coloring agents used in many products, including salad dressings, meat products, cosmetics and clothing. The incredible range of varieties, heat levels, flavor attributes and the fantastic range of fruit shape and color make it easier for growers to address many food and non-food niche markets.

Capsaicin, the active heat ingredient from peppers, is a pharmacological product used as a topical anti-arthritic and anti-inflammatory agent. Two related non-food non-pharmacological applications for capsaicin include the temporarily debilitating "pepper spray" weapons for personal protection and use of the compound as a "natural" "organic" pesticide. Almost all capsaicin for these "industrial" applications comes from Asian and South African producers and large international chemical distributors. This is a high-value material, for example, 60 percent capsicum sells for about $85 per gram and further purified 97 percent capsicum sells for $325 per gram. A derivative, dihydrocapsaicin, represents about 10 percent of the compound present in commercial 60 percent capsicum preparations and regularly sells for around $200 per gram. It is interesting to note that "pure super concentrated" capsicum medicinal formulations (1 million Scoville) heat units available over the Internet sell for only about $10 per ounce (obviously these are quite far from being "pure" formulations).

With respect to the pharmacological properties of capsaicin, it is generally recognized as a powerful local stimulant with no narcotic effect. Capsaicin adherents claim that it is beneficial to the intestines and stomach, aids the removal of waste products and increases the flow of nutrients to the tissues. It has been suggested that by dilating blood vessels, it is able to relieve the chronic nasal congestion of people who are alcoholics or heavy drinkers. Capsaicin also is used as a tonic for warding off disease (perhaps due instead to the high vitamin C content of the pepper). Used externally, it is used to stimulate circulation and often is applied by physicians and physical trainers as a linament. Capsaicin also has been demonstrated to relieve the pain of diabetic neuropathy and other chronic muscle ailments. Powdered peppers have even been placed inside the stockings as a traditional remedy for those prone to cold feet. Capsaicin also is said to have other attributes that include almost everything from the anti-hemorrhoidal to memory enhancement.

There may be some problems associated with prolonged or excessive intake of chili peppers. A recent finding by the European Union Scientific Committee on Food brings to light several studies that suggest high levels of ingested capsaicin may result in some oral and bowel cancers. These studies are not well known in North America. Should additional studies continue to suggest that pepper ingestion has negative health effects, there could be some lessening of the current hot food and capsaicin pharmacology fervor, affecting those markets and products.

Competitive intensity within the pepper production industry is extremely varied. A few large growers may influence a considerable share of domestic distribution to major national or regional grocery chains and processors. However, these same growers may have little impact on farmers' market and similar local sales outlets. Various markets exist for growers with small-acreage farms of several acres. Some smaller growers may handle their own processing and perhaps marketing of specialty condiments like salsas and hot sauces. Still others may concentrate only on the production of ornamental plants or seedlings for sale to enthusiasts and gardeners. This is a highly diversified industry with considerable growth potential in the niche market areas. As Asian and Latino cultures continue to influence American European cuisine, this growth should continue.

Several basic marketing alternatives are available to pepper growers. These include sales to coops, local retailers (grocery stores including ethnic-group-specific grocers), wholesale marketers or processing firms. Other alternatives include direct sales to consumers at roadside produce stands or pick-your-own operations. Local grocery or retail stores are another possible market, but this involves contacting produce or inventory managers and reliably providing high-quality peppers or pepper-derived product on a regular or pre-arranged basis.

With respect to wholesale marketing, producers often contract with shippers to market and ship their peppers for a predetermined price. If a grower does not use a contractor and ships the peppers directly to the wholesaler, the product is subject to the greatest price fluctuation. Marketing cooperatives generally use a pooled daily cost and price, which spreads price fluctuations over all participating producers.

Roadside stands and pick-your-own operations provide opportunities to receive higher than wholesale prices but may demand additional expenses for advertising or maintaining and staffing the facility. Additionally, for the small producer, this may demand a considerable time commitment. Pick-your-own operations save on harvest costs, but there may be additional wastage as well as time and personnel demands.

In the past two decades, U.S. fresh-market pepper exports and imports have both been trending upward. However, pepper exports are relatively small compared with imports. NAFTA partners supply most U.S. fresh vegetable imports, including peppers.

Fresh peppers valued at more than $87.2 million were exported in 2011, an 11 percent increase from the previous year. Canada was again the largest buyer of fresh U.S. peppers, purchasing peppers valued at more than $81.8 million, an increase from 2010, followed by Mexico, which purchased $1.4 million of U.S. peppers, a drop from the previous year.  (FAS 2011)

In contrast, the United States imported bell peppers valued at more than $624.4 million in 2011, a 6 percent decrease from the previous year. Of that amount, about $463.9 million, or nearly 75 percent of the peppers by value, were grown in greenhouses, primarily in Canada or Mexico. In terms of country of origin, Mexico shipped more than $350.3 million of bell peppers to the United States in 2011, a drop from the previous year. Canada provided bell peppers valued at more than $234.6 million, an increase from 2010.  (FAS 2011)

Chili Pepper Institute, New Mexico State University - An international nonprofit organization devoted to education, research, publication and archiving information related to Capsicums or chile peppers.

Global Ag Trade System, Foreign Agricultural Service, USDA.

Vegetable Reports, National Ag Statistical Service (NASS), USDA - This report provides data on bell peppers, including area harvested, prospective area, yield and production for major states.

Vegetables and Pulses Yearbook, Economic Research Service, USDA, 2012.

Vegetables Annual Summary, NASS, USDA, 2012.

Profile created March 2003 and revised November 2012.


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