Article courtesy of Donna Hargrove, D.O., Nutrition Editor
Few foods are known for ramping up endorphins more than chile peppers. Chile aficionados can hardly eat a meal without them, and love a challenge to eat hotter and hotter peppers. There are many good reasons to love chile peppers because they are nutritious, make many dishes taste a lot better and may have health benefits as a bonus.
Chile peppers range in heat from non-existent to extremely hot and painful. The heat is caused by a chemical in the pepper called capsaicin (cap-say-ah-sin). The typical heat scale of a pepper is measured in Scoville units. The Scoville scale was developed by an American chemist, Wilbur Scoville in 1912. Today, modern chemical procedures like High Performance Liquid Chromatography are used to measure the heat of a pepper, but the Scoville name is still used to honor Dr. Wilbur. The higher the Scoville number, the hotter the pepper. A tolerance to the heat from capsaicin can be developed with repeated exposure and increases in heat scale. Capsaicin is thought to cause release of endorphins that creates a pain/pleasure sensation for many people and keeps them wanting more. The placenta of the pepper (where the seeds are attached) contains the most capsaicin and therefore the hottest part of the pepper. Removing this part prior to preparing the peppers will significantly lower the heat level (and some of the enjoyment). Be sure to wear gloves as capsaicin has an oily consistency that is absorbed into your skin and cannot simply be washed off. So where ever your hands go, so does the heat! The heat of a chile pepper can vary depending on environmental conditions, so a jalapeno grown in one part to the country may be a lot hotter than another. If you get in over your head with a pepper being too hot, you can sip or eat a dairy product (like milk or cream cheese). The protein casein in the dairy helps displace the capsaicin in your tongue and mouth. Capsaicin is not soluble in water, only fats, oils and alcohol, so reaching for that glass of water is not going to help!
Capsaicin’s ability to cause pain is also used to relieve pain. Exposure to capsaicin depletes the substance that sends signals to the pain receptors in the area where it is applied and lowers the sensitivity to pain. It is used in several preparations to treat arthritis and other painful conditions.
Chiles originated in the Americas and have been a part of the human diet since at least 7500 BC. Chiles migrated around the whole by sailors with trading goods and also by birds. Birds are not affected by the heat of the peppers like mammals because the capsaicin targets certain pain receptors which the birds do not have. The seeds of the peppers are able to pass through the digestive tract of the birds unharmed and can germinate wherever they land.
Chile pepper pods are technically a vegetable and can be used fresh, dried, pickled, or ground. They are also made into sauces. The leaves of the pepper plant are mildly bitter and are cooked as greens in Filipino, Japanese and Korean cuisines.
Red chile peppers of all types are especially nutritious, containing significant levels of Vitamins C and B6, along with potassium, magnesium and iron. Iron from beans and grains are more readily absorbed when combined with chile peppers due to the high Vitamin C concentration of the peppers.
Chile peppers belong to the plant species Capsicum. According to Dave DeWitt and Dr. Paul Bosland, there are 5 species of Capsicum peppers, with the hottest peppers belonging to the group Capsicum chinense. For a good read on peppers from bell peppers to the hottest known varieties, check out Peppers of the World: An Identification Guide, written by these 2 experts. Dave DeWitt, author and publisher of numerous food and chile pepper books, magazines, videos and co-producer of the National Fiery Foods and Barbeque Show held every year in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is a name known worldwide for his expertise on chile peppers. Dr. Paul Bosland, a horticulture professor and director of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, is known as a world leader in chile pepper research and breeding.