Mother Earth Living

Hot Chile Pepper Health

The fire of the hot chile pepper tantalizes taste buds around the world.
By Kim Erickson
August/September 2001
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Just one nibble can take your breath away and make you sweat. And depending on the variety, a single bite can move the most macho among us to tears. We’re talking about chile peppers—those searing morsels that separate the daring diners from the gastronomically gutless. Chiles are the basis for some of the world’s hottest sauces.

Fire-Eaters’ Fancy

Chile peppers originated in Bolivia and Paraguay and have been used by humans for at least 9,000 years. These intensely flavored fruits were spicing up meals in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean long before Christopher Columbus and other explorers took them back to Europe. Since then, chile peppers have gained popularity in every corner of the world. Today, we find peppers in everything from enchiladas to ice cream. In the United States alone, 218 million pounds of peppers were consumed last year—up from 95 million pounds in 1980.

All peppers are members of the Capsicum genus and belong to the Solanaceae—a family that also includes tomatoes and eggplant. Although supermarkets and garden catalogs offer a wide variety of chiles, there are actually only five species of domesticated peppers. Annual peppers (Capsicum annuum) include the familiar bell, jalapeño, and New Mexico pepper. Aji (C. baccatum) is a berrylike pepper. Rocotillo peppers (C. pubescens) hail from South America. C. chinense includes the habanero, reportedly the hottest pepper on Earth. And then there are the tabascos (C. frutescens). This legendary hot-sauce ingredient is the stuff chilehead dreams are made of.

The compound that makes chile peppers so pungent is capsaicin. Pure capsaicin is a whitish powder that is soluble in fats, oils and alcohol but doesn’t dissolve in water. Although many blame the seeds for harboring the heat, capsaicin is actually more concentrated in the white membranes of the fruit.

Once the chemical comes in contact with the nerve endings in your mouth, it fools your brain into thinking you’re in pain. The brain responds to this trickery by producing endorphins, natural painkillers that can produce a feeling of euphoria. Can chile peppers be addictive? You bet! Unlike other spicy foods, hot peppers eaten frequently can cause a long-lasting, selective desensitization, sending chile lovers in search of a hotter “high.”

With more than 200 varieties to choose from, fans can spike their favorite foods with the mildly spicy pasilla or ancho, the feisty jalapeño or chipotle, or the searing serrano. But the most popular way to get a chile high is with hot sauce.

Hot Sauce Secrets

While the intensity of your sauce depends largely on the variety of chile pepper used, the other ingredients used in hot sauce can take you on a world tour of taste. First stop—the Caribbean, where being a jerk isn’t an insult. The popular Jamaican jerk sauce includes ripe mangoes, papayas, and tamarind in a base of habaneros. Central and South American and Tex-Mex sauces get their mellow glow from garlic, onions, and tomatoes. Asian countries use cayenne or finger hot chiles in a variety of sauces. Vietnam has nuoc cham, a fish sauce spiked with lemongrass, and Szechuan fire oil infused with the flavors of coriander, ginger and black pepper. Combining the best of the Americas and the Orient, Indonesia’s sambal adds onions, garlic, ginger, tamarind and dried shrimp paste to red-hot chiles for a mouth-blistering sauce.

Because capsaicin doesn’t dissolve in water, drinking water won’t alleviate the burning sensation. Put out the fire with a dose of dairy. Casein, the protein found in milk, literally strips the capsaicin from the nerve endings while the fat content absorbs the chemical. Hot sauce aficionados always keep plenty of whole milk on hand.

So how hot is that hot sauce? It depends on the type of chile used and how it is grown. According to the Chile Pepper Institute in Las Cruces, New Mexico, chile pungency levels are the result of both the plant’s genetics and the environment it’s grown in. The amount of water a plant receives and the temperature it’s grown at can greatly affect the heat levels. But there are standards for measuring the amount of relative heat common to each variety.

The traditional way to test a chile’s potency is with the Scoville Organoleptic Test. Invented in 1912 by pharmacist Wilber Scoville, this is a comparative taste test that measures the average amount of capsaicin using a panel of five taste testers. The original test required the testers to take exact weights of each chile pepper and dissolve the capsaicin in alcohol. This solution was then diluted with sugar water until it was no longer detectable to the palate. Three of the five testers had to agree before a value was assigned.

Although the Scoville method has become the industry standard, a more accurate, albeit expensive, way to test a chile’s heat is with high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). The capsaicin is extracted from dried, ground chiles and injected into the HPLC, which measures the total heat present as well as the individual capsaicinoid. Even though the HPLC method is considered far superior to the subjective taste test, these measurements are still referred to as Scoville units.

Regardless of the testing method, habanero peppers have the distinct honor of being the hottest pepper on record. With habaneros coming in at a whopping 100,000 to 300,000 Scoville units, jalapeños pale in comparison at a mere 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville units. But, for those of us who can’t relate to numbers, here is a general rule when selecting chiles—the smaller the pepper, the more intense the heat.

Pepper Nutrition

Peppers are among the most nutritious foods around. Packed with antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, and E, peppers are also a good source of beta-carotene, capsanthin, and zeaxanthin, carotenoids that protect cells from free-radical damage. Just one fresh red chile serves up as much vitamin A as 1/2 cup of broccoli, as much potassium as 1 cup of spinach, and more vitamin C than five oranges, along with trace amounts of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and folic acid—all for a paltry thirty-seven calories! In fact, eating 1 ounce of fresh green chiles can satisfy the recommended dietary allowance for vitamin C, and a scant teaspoon will cover your vitamin A needs.

Cooking or drying the fiery fruit, however, changes the equation. Since vitamin C is one of the least stable of all the vitamins, the application of heat or air will cause the pepper’s vitamin C content to drop to 154 mg. Dried, ground red chiles contain less than 3 percent of the vitamin C level found in fresh peppers. Vitamin A, on the other hand, actually increases when the peppers are cooked, boosting levels one hundred-fold. In fact, processed red chile peppers contain more vitamin A than carrots!

Pick a pepper

With names like After Death, Blow Your Head Off and Mad Dog Inferno, the makers of hot sauce will go to great lengths to tempt chileheads. But the amount of fire in the bottle depends on the pepper used. Here is the heat rating of the most popular peppers.

capsaicin heat rating


Kim Erickson writes on natural health and environmental issues and is the author of Drop Dead Gorgeous: Protecting Yourself from the Hidden Dangers of Cosmetics (Contemporary Books, 2002).


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