Why Are Chili Peppers So Spicy?

It may come as a surprise, but chili peppers originated in the Americas and have been a part of human diets for thousands of years. Archaeologists in Ecuador have found evidence suggesting that chili peppers have been cultivated and consumed for over 6,000 years.

Christopher Columbus, known for “discovering” America, was one of the first Europeans to come across chili peppers during his explorations of Central and South America. Upon returning home, Columbus and other explorers introduced Europeans to this fiery pepper.

Soon after, Europeans began discovering culinary and medicinal uses for chili peppers. In 1494, Diego Alvarez Chance, a doctor on Columbus’ second voyage to the West Indies, wrote about the medicinal properties of chili peppers.

As trade between Europe and the Far East grew, chili peppers were also introduced to the Philippines, India, Korea, and Japan and became a part of their local cuisines.

So, what makes these small peppers so hot? The answer lies in capsaicin, a chemical found in chili peppers.

When you consume a pepper, capsaicin interacts with pain receptors in your mouth. These receptors are sensitive to heat. When capsaicin activates these receptors, they send a signal to the brain, indicating that you have eaten something spicy.

In response to this signal, your brain increases your heart rate, triggers perspiration, and releases endorphins, which are natural pain-relieving chemicals. The highest concentration of capsaicin can be found in the white flesh and the seeds’ coating inside the pepper.

Peppers come in various sizes, shapes, colors, and levels of spiciness. In 1912, a chemist named Wilbur Scoville developed a specialized scale to measure the spiciness of peppers.

Scoville conducted an experiment called the “Scoville Organoleptic Test,” in which trained tasters sampled water containing chili pepper extracts. By diluting the samples until the tasters could no longer detect any heat or spiciness, Scoville assigned each pepper a numerical rating known as the “Scoville Heat Unit (SHU).”

For instance, a habanero pepper has an SHU rating of 200,000. This means that the habanero sample had to be diluted 200,000 times before the tasters could no longer detect its heat.

The Scoville Scale is still used today, with peppers ranging from 0 (bell peppers) to over a million (naja jokolia/ghost chili). Pure capsaicin measures 16 million SHUs!

If you’re not a fan of spicy food, you may not find chili peppers on your plate anytime soon. However, they may be used in hospitals. A recent study discovered that capsaicin can target cancer cells without harming nearby healthy cells. This finding could be beneficial for future cancer research and the development of treatments.

Fun facts about chili peppers:

  • Capsaicin is not soluble in water, so drinking water won’t help cool your mouth after eating a pepper. Instead, try drinking cold milk for relief.
  • Chili peppers are an excellent source of vitamin C.
  • There are three accepted ways to spell chili in English: “Chili” (South America and parts of the United States), “Chile” (North America, including parts of the United States), and “Chilli” (Great Britain).

Give It a Try

Can you feel the spiciness? Discover more about chili peppers by engaging in the following activities with a friend or family member:

  • Feeling hungry? Ask an adult friend or family member to take you on a trip to your local grocery store. Visit the produce section and explore the variety of chili peppers available. How many different types can you find? Which ones do you think are the hottest? If possible, choose a few different types to take home and try for dinner tonight!
  • Feeling adventurous? Go online and browse the collection of Chili Pepper Recipes on the Chili Pepper Madness website. Select one or two recipes to try at home. Make sure to seek assistance from an adult friend or family member when cooking with chili peppers!
  • In the early days, settlers in the Southwest United States would hang “ristras” (strings of dried chili peppers) in their homes to preserve and store peppers for year-round cooking. Some people would also hang ristras outside their homes as a sign that they had food and shelter available for travelers. Today, ristras are still a popular decoration in many homes, symbolizing hospitality. Give it a try and make a ristra for your family’s kitchen, bringing warmth to your home.

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