Native peoples of Mexico and Central and South America have used hot peppers for at least 9,000 years, while those living in the present United States started cultivating them at least 5,000 years ago. But until Christopher Columbus returned from the New World in 1493 bearing chiles, Europeans had never felt
Today, cayenne and its relatives are believed to be the most widely consumed spice in the world. More than 2 million acres are devoted to pepper production, and more than 25 percent of the world’s population consume peppers every day.
What is cayenne?
At least 1,700 varieties of peppers have been identified. All belong to the genus Capsicum of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), whose many members also include tomatoes, eggplants, and potatoes. Bell peppers, pimento, paprika, and cayenne peppers all belong to C. annuum, one of the most diverse cultivated plant species and the source of most peppers grown commercially and in home gardens. Tabasco peppers, grown commercially in the Gulf states and New Mexico, are a different species, C. frutescens. Other domesticated species include C. chinense, (from the Amazon region, not China) and C. pubescens and C. baccatum, from the Andes.
Cayenne belongs to C. annuum var. annuum Longum group. The fruits of the Longum group typically are long, narrow, tapering, and pendent. Up to a foot long and as wide as 13/4 inches at the top, cayenne contains up to 1.5 percent pungent principles composed mainly of capsaicin. In reference to its pungency, the word “cayenne” is derived from a Greek word meaning “to bite.”
Early years in the Old World
Europeans found Columbus’s new “pepper” more pungent than the sought-after black pepper (Piper nigrum) for which he had set sail in 1492. Cayenne soon traveled to Asia in the hands of Portuguese traders. It was cultivated in India, then reintroduced to Germany by the 1540s. The first botanical illustration and description of cayenne appeared in 1542 in Leonhart Fuchs’s herbal, Historia Stirpium (see “An Herbal’s Renaissance,” June/July 1999).
Half a century later, “ginnie” (Guinea) peppers were being widely grown in Europe as a seasoning, which, according to the English herbalist John Gerard, “warmeth the stomacke, and helpeth greatly, the digestion of meates.”
Cayenne’s history as a healing herb is a long one. The ancient Mayans used it to treat sore gums. In addition to using it as a digestive aid, Europeans adopted it as a topical counterirritant and gargle. Samuel Thomson (1769–1843), a self-styled physician whose Thomsonian system of herbal medicine advocated heroic purges as the key to health, promoted cayenne’s ability to restore digestive powers. “A teaspoonful of Cayenne may be taken in a tumbler of cider and is much better than ardent spirits,” he wrote. “There is scarce any preparation of medicine that I make use of, in which I do not put some of this article.” As more effective drugs were developed over the next century, the use of cayenne in medicine fell out of favor, but it was again vigorously promoted in the 1970s by the herbal practitioner John Christopher, author of School of Natural Healing. Herbalists’ claims that cayenne aids digestion, strengthens the heart and nervous system, and improves peripheral circulation have not been scientifically verified, however. Consequently, in Germany, which has the most stringent regulatory system for herbal medicine, cayenne may not be sold to treat these conditions.
Red peppers are rich sources of antioxidants including vitamins C and E as well as the yellow to red pigments called carotenoids.
Antioxidants are believed to enhance health by neutralizing free radicals, unstable molecular fragments formed in cells during the body’s normal metabolic activities. Free radicals can damage cell membranes and disturb metabolic pathways. Consumption of carotenoids in food has been associated with a reduction in the risk of contracting certain cancers by increasing the activity of specialized cells that destroy foreign substances entering the body. Carotenoids may also help reduce problems associated with age-related diseases.
In 1937, the Hungarian-born scientist Albert Szent-Gyîrgyi won the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for the first extraction of vitamin C—from peppers, one of the vitamin’s richest vegetable sources. Although fresh peppers may contain as much as 340 mg/100 g, processing, drying, and storage reduce the amount. (The vitamin E content of fresh red peppers is moderate compared with that of other vegetables.)
Cayenne contains capsaicin, the substance that makes your eyes water and your nose run when you take a mouthful of food containing it. Paradoxically, pure capsaicin and its analogs are ingredients of topical creams used to relieve pain associated with diabetic neuropathy, arthritis, and shingles. It is also under study as a topical treatment for psoriasis, vitiligo, intractable itching, phantom pain syndrome, postsurgical pain, and sciatica. Although a single application of a capsaicin cream itself causes pain, repeated applications over several weeks result in densensitization of the painful area.
Consult your physician to learn which form and dosage may be appropriate for your condition. Do not substitute powdered red peppers of any sort for commercial products containing capsaicin as you have no way of knowing how much capsaicin you are receiving.