Hot Chile Pepper Health

The fire of the hot chile pepper tantalizes taste buds around the world.

| August/September 2001

  • Habanero
  • Jalapeño
  • Pasilla
  • Serrano

  • Thai

Recipe: Red Hot Sauce 

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.”

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