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Chile Peppers: Where’s the Heat?

We all have them – a pepper story. “I don’t know what happened. I’d ordered ‘medium’ there before with no problem. But this time, when I put the first bite in my mouth, blam! It was so hot it blew the top of my head off!” And, we all know them – the chileheads. Those people in our lives who put Tabasco sauce on their eggs, think jalapeño liqueur sounds like a good idea and make chili that will clean the rust off your old truck’s fender. So, what’s up with the heat? What makes peppers hot?

The heat from a pepper is not a flavor. It doesn’t interact with your taste buds but with the pain receptors in your mouth! They send the signal of burning (that is, pain) to your brain, which makes chiles seem hot. Your brain, in turn, responds as if something is burning, sending blood to the region, turning your face red and making you sweat. This reaction is different for each person. Some sweat profusely; others feel the heat intensely; while some are hardly affected. (Check out our website to learn if you’re a “supertaster.”) The pain response also includes the release of endorphins, which can create an effect similar to a “runner’s high.” Those who have a fervent love of chiles tell me that, in addition to cleaning their sinuses, eating a habanero-hot meal gives them a feeling of well-being.

What sends this fire alarm to your brain? Hot peppers contain capsaicin (pronounced cap-SAY-a-sin) and several related chemicals, collectively called capsaicinoids. Capsaicin is the active ingredient in pepper spray – those who handle it in its pure form do so while wearing hazmat suits. The chemical is produced by glands in the pepper’s placenta (where the seeds attach), and most of the heat is centered there.

Researchers think that peppers have this defense to keep a fungus from growing and killing their seeds. The capsaicin kills the fungus but doesn’t affect the birds that eat the peppers and spread the seeds. Capsaicin also kills bacteria, making it a great addition to foods in an era without refrigeration.

How hot is hot? Well, in 1912, a drug researcher named Wilbur Scoville decided to give hot peppers a taste test. The ratings his testers gave became the Scoville scale. The hotter pepper ratings (say a habanero) range from 300,000 to 500,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU); the lowest (say an ancho) are closer to 1,000 SHU. The famed jalapeño rates at just 2,500 to 10,000 SHU. The hottest chile in the world, the Naga Jolokia or “Poison chile,” comes in at a whopping 1,040,000 SHU.

Capsaisinoids don’t dissolve in water but do dissolve in fat. This makes milk or cheese a better choice to remove the heat than water. The fat in milk removes capsaicin much like soap removes dirt (attentive readers will remember the January/February 2009 Quiz GRIT about soap). To get the hot stuff off your hands, your best bet is to rub vegetable oil on them first and then wash them well with soap and water. Follow our advice though and wear gloves when you’re working with the hot ones, even the most avid chilehead I know doesn’t relish an accidental bit of chile juice in the eye.

GRIT Web Editor Jenn Nemec used to be solidly a bell pepper girl, but recently she’s worked up to tasting a good poblano now and again.

Published on Aug 11, 2009

Grit Magazine

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