A Hot and Spicy Introduction to Peppers

Our pepper basics will have you craving more

| July/August 2004

I have yet to encounter a food more boisterous than a hot pepper. If you’ve been initiated into this most cacophonous of condiments, you likely fall into one of two categories of people: the pepper lovers and the would-be lovers. For pepper aficionados, a mind-boggling array of habaneros, scotch bonnets, chiltepins, serranos, pasillas, anchos and jalapeños exist to satiate the fussiest fire-eater. And peppers pack an impressive health punch — their benefits include pain suppression, improved circulation, antimicrobial action, anti- inflammatory action and elevated metabolism.

Not all peppers are hot. Technically, a chile pepper is defined as the pod of any species of Capsicum, and some are quite mild, such as bell peppers (also known as sweet peppers). Of the five major species, C. annuum constitutes the largest group and contains the cayenne, bell, serrano and jalapeños peppers. C. chinense boasts the hottest peppers, such as scotch bonnets and habaneros, whose marble-shaped pods range in color from unripe green to fully ripe red.

How Hot is Hot?

Peppers are rated according to their capsaicin (or capsaicinoid) content, using a scale developed in 1912 by a pharmacist named Scoville. For comparison, most bell peppers rate 0 to 100; jalapeños are 2,500 to 5,000; cayenne (or red pepper) and tabascos are 30,000 to 50,000; scotch bonnet and Thai peppers are 100,000 to 350,000; and habaneros are 200,000 to 577,000. Pure capsaicin rates 16,000,000. The capsaicin content is mainly a function of genetics — sweet peppers lack the gene for its production.

Powerful Pain Relief

Capsaicin is a superb pain reliever. It works via several routes. First, it produces a burning sensation upon contact with the mouth, eyes or skin, which elicits production of pain-blocking endorphins. It also curbs pain signals to the brain by depleting a nerve transmitter known as Substance P. Third, it produces salicyclates, which are aspirin-like pain relievers. Finally, it promotes production of collagenase and prostaglandins, which reduce pain and inflammation.

Topically applied capsaicin (for example, in creams such as Heet, Zostrix and Capzasin-P) can relieve muscular aches and reduce pains from osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, rheumatism and shingles. It also can relieve post-mastectomy pain, nerve pain from diabetes and chronic lower-back pain. A paste of powdered cayenne in water applied with a cotton ball to an aching tooth (without touching the gum) can ease a toothache. Be sure to keep capsaicin cream and cayenne away from your eyes.

Improved Circulation and Breathing

Improved circulation is another benefit pepper lovers enjoy. In a Thai study, hot chiles were shown experimentally to dissolve blood clots for about 30 minutes after consumption. The study postulated that frequent stimulation in this manner may continuously clear the blood of clots, thereby reducing the risk of arterial blockage.

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