November 3, 2003
Volume 81, Number 44
CENEAR 81 44 p. 41
ISSN 0009-2347


WHAT'S THAT STUFF?

RED-HOT CHILI PEPPERS
The chemical capsaicin makes peppers hot; the best antidote may be ice cream

RICK MULLIN

Perhaps my teenage daughters interpreted my severe warning as a ploy on my part to keep all the little orange peppers I'd grown in the backyard garden for myself. Or maybe the challenge was just impossible for them to resist. At any rate, they assured me they had eaten hot peppers before and liked them.

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PHOTO BY RICK MULLIN
Within seconds of nibbling the habañeros, of course, their table manners were abruptly canceled. Reduced to tearful and outrageous claims that I made them eat the "stupid peppers," the two of them began gulping massive quantities of water and crying that their lips were swelling. I calmly assured them there would be no swelling and that eating bread would help more than drinking water. I then excused myself, ran out the back door gasping for air, and began chewing on the grass to put out the fire in my head.

These peppers are really hot. The guy at the nursery who sold me the plants warned me, and I scoffed, more or less like a teenager. Maybe if he had told me that the habañero peppers hit the scale at 300,000 to 500,000 Scoville units--a folkloric system for measuring the potency of peppers--compared with a mere 2,500 Scoville units for a hot jalapeño, I would have bought more basil instead. But no. I had to grow hot peppers to impress the kids. Now look at me.

The culprit, of course, is a chemical: capsaicin. An extremely powerful and stable alkaloid produced in a crystalline form by glands at the junction of the pepper's placenta and pod walls, capsaicin is found in nothing in nature other than a short list of peppers--or more precisely chilis. It seems Columbus in the New World, thinking he was in India, mistook the natives for Indians and their chilis for pepper. Both names stuck. For the purposes of this article, and so as not to sound like too much of a chili wonk, let's call them peppers.

But let's also call on a chili wonk for more about capsaicin. And let's go right to the top of the list--Dave DeWitt, also known as the Pope of Peppers, is the publisher of Fiery Foods & BBQ magazine and the organizer of the National Fiery Foods and BBQ Show, an international trade show held each year in Albuquerque, N.M. Much of the science and history I have culled on capsaicin comes from DeWitt.

Capsaicin-producing peppers originated in Bolivia and parts of Brazil. They were spread throughout the Americas by birds, and to Europe by Columbus. They now grow pretty much worldwide. The Aztecs were the first to incorporate the peppers into their food, ritual, and culture. An early documented use, DeWitt says, was to discipline children by holding them over piles of burning peppers.

Today, there are a wide range of slightly more enlightened industrial uses for capsaicin. It's what puts the punch in pepper spray, of course. And marine coatings are being developed using capsaicin as an environmentally safe means of deterring barnacle growth.

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Capsaicin is used in repellent sprays to protect gardens from mammalian pests--birds are not affected by the chemical. Capsaicin stimulates circulation, prompts pain receptor cells to release endorphins, and is used in various analgesic formulations for arthritis and other types of pain.

Exploration of the chemistry of capsaicin dates back to 1816 when P. A. Bucholtz first discovered that the pungent principle of peppers could be extracted from macerated pods using organic solvents. In 1846, L. T. Thresh reported in Pharmacy Journal that the principal chemical component could be extracted in its crystalline state. He named it capsaicin. In 1964, S. Kosuge and Y. Inagaki identified a related set of components called capsaicinoids, including capsaicin, dihydrocapsaicin, nordihydrocapsaicin, homocapsaicin, and homodihydrocapsaicin. The capsaicinoids work together in peppers to produce the much-vaunted effect, with capsaicin and dihydrocapsaicin delivering the majority of the payload.

The most storied laboratory work on capsaicin was done by Wilbur Scoville, who in 1912 convened a panel of pepper tasters who rated the heat of different peppers. In an effort, perhaps, to underline the intense pain caused by the hottest peppers, Scoville decided to base his scale on pure capsaicin at 16 million Scoville units. Scoville's system is dismissed as highly subjective by scientists, but it is the preferred means of ranking pepper heat by chili lovers.

Pure capsaicin will, in fact, make your lips swell--or worse. Chemists handling it must wear full-body protection and work in a filtered toxic-substance lab room. There are actually sites on the Internet that explain how to distill it. You need a lot of peppers and a lot of harsh solvent to get just a little bit of capsaicin. DeWitt says he tracks down the sources of these instructions, hoping to convince them to remove the how-to from the Web, because the process and end result are both extremely dangerous.

Capsaicin in nature, however, never really hurt anyone--500,000 Scoville units is way less than 16 million Scoville units. Chili peppers are, in fact, a good source of vitamins A, C, and E. They are rich in folic acid and potassium, and low in calories and sodium, with no carbohydrates. They also deliver an endorphin rush similar to that produced by the body after a good jog. And, according to DeWitt, there is anecdotal evidence that certain peppers can produce a heightened state of consciousness.

So, as it turns out, I do get to keep all the peppers. These days, I'm producing vats of my own special-recipe chili, which I've learned is much better when eaten the day after it's made--and a heck of a lot better than jogging. I've advised the family that one should not operate heavy machinery, such as lawn mowers, for several hours after eating Dad's Second-Day Backyard Chili. And given that capsaicin breaks down in fats, I've let on that ice cream is really the best antidote for chili pain.



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