All About Chile Peppers
Chile Peppers originated in the Americas. They have been consumed by humans since 7500 BC. Christopher Columbus was one of the first Europeans to encounter the chile pepper, and he dubbed them “peppers” due to their similarity to black pepper. After Columbus brought chile seeds back to Spain (as part of what is known as the Columbian Exchange), they were disseminated throughout the world, likely by Portuguese traders. Many cultures incorporated chiles into their native cuisines, including Hungary, India, and Thailand, to name a few.
There are 5 domesticated species of chile peppers:
- Capsicum annuum is the most common species, and they include bell peppers, wax, cayenne, jalapeños, and the chiltepin.
- Capsicum frutescens is another common species, which includes tabasco, Thai peppers, piri piri, and African birdseye chili. Some consider frutescens to be part of the annuum species.
- Capsicum chinense is a species that includes many of the hottest chiles, such as the ghost pepper, habanero, Datil and Scotch bonnet. Like the frutescens, there is some debate as to whether it should be included in the annuum species.
- Capsicum pubescens is an uncommon species which is destinguished by its hairy leaves and black seeds. The primary example of this species is the rocoto pepper.
- Capsicum baccatum is a species primarily found in South American, and it includes aji limon and peppadew peppers.
The Science of Heat
Chile peppers are the fruit of plants from the genus Capsicum, members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae. Chile peppers get their distinctive heat from a naturally occuring chemical called Capsaicin.
When consumed, capsaicinoids bind with pain receptors in the mouth and throat that are responsible for sensing heat. Once activated by the capsaicinoids, these receptors send a message to the brain that the person has consumed something hot. The brain responds to the burning sensation by raising the heart rate, increasing perspiration and release of endorphins.
The Scoville Scale
The Scoville Scale was named after Wilbur Scoville, who developed a method of quantifying the heat of chiles in 1912. The original method involved incremental dilution of chile extract, until the heat of the chile is no longer noticeable by a panel of testers. For example, a habanero with a rating of 300,000 must be diluted that many times before the heat is no longer detectible. This method has its flaws, because it relies on the subjective analysis of testers, who may have varying levels of sensitivity to heat.
Modern methods, specifically high-performance liquid chromatography, makes direct measurement of capsaisin possible. This method reveals how many parts-per-million there are of capsaisin, which can then be multiplied by 15 to give the equivalent scoville unit.
Chile peppers are great for your health. Most people simply associate chiles with being spicy, but they are surprisingly jam packed with nutrients. Red peppers, for example, have a higher concentration of vitamin A than carrots. By weight, green chiles have twice the amount of vitamin C than citrus fruits. Orange colored chiles are good sources of leutine and zeaxanthin which help lower the risk of macular degeneration. In addition to vitamins A and C, chiles contain E & B vitamins such as thiamine, niacin and riboflavin, flavinoids, potassium, iron and magnesium. Because chile peppers are such a rich source of nutrients, some have suggested that they may aid in the prevention of cancer.
Chiles have a long history of being used for medicinal purposes. In the 16th century, Spanish sailors took chiles on voyages to ward off scurvy and ate two roasted peppers for dessert each day to improve their vision. Chiles have also been said to aid motion and sea sickness. Native Americans in pre-Colombian times, used chiles to aid childbirth, coughs, ear infections and sore throats. Railroad workers in West Africa always carried peppers around because they considered them essential for good health. The high concentration of vitamin A was thought to improve symptoms of varicose veins and hemorrhoids which were common among the railroad workers.
Today, chile peppers are used to help prevent and aid in recovery from many illnesses. One common use for chiles is the clearing of nasal passages when sick with a cold or sinus infection. Many people even use chiles to help with common aches and pains and capsaicin can be found in arthritis creams because of its anti-inflammatory effects.
There is a common misconception that chile peppers are bad for your heart and stomach. While it may seem counter intuitive, chiles actually aid in digestion, blood circulation, and are even great at burning calories! Chiles help your stomach by killing bacteria and by stimulating the cells lining the stomach to secrete protective juices that are essential in preventing ulcers. Capsaicin, the molecule responsible for chile peppers heat, can also help prevent blood clots because it aids in thinning the blood and increases blood circulation. Chiles can also speed up your metabolism which in turn burns more calories. Chile peppers also benefit your heart by decreasing cholesterol absorption so more is expelled from your body. They can increase the amount of enzymes in your body that are responsible for fat metabolization in the liver.
A variety of skin conditions can be improved by the topical application and digestion of chile peppers. Many dandruff shampoos add capsaicin extract to help re-moisturize dry and flaky scalps, which adds a satisfying tingle to the shampooing process (just don't get it in your eyes!). Chiles can also be used to help ease the pain of psoriasis by blocking the nerve endings that transmit pain impulses. Chiles also have the ability to warm you up and can help conditions such as hypothermia and frostbite. Chiles can even be put in shoes to warm up your feet. While there is no scientific evidence yet, many people also believe that chiles soothe the itchiness of skin and that they help ‘draw out’ poison and help reduce swelling from fresh insect stings and bites.
The many health benefits of chile peppers truly qualify them as a superfood!