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June 27, 2006 > What makes a hot pepper hot?

What makes a hot pepper hot?

The sensation of heat is caused by a chemical family called capsaicinoids. The primary capsaicinoid is capsaicin (cap-say-sin). Hot peppers such as tabasco, cayenne, jalapeno, Thai chilies, and dozens of others produce capsaicin from glands in the pod where the stem attaches. The capsaicin is concentrated in the pod and the thin membranes or "ribs" within the pepper. Since the seeds lie close to these membranes, they may also absorb a significant amount of capsaicin. The flesh or body of the pepper also contains varying amounts of capsaicin, though in much lower concentrations.

Some peppers apparently developed the use of capsaicin as a defense against herbivores. The plants generally grow low to the ground and have no other obvious natural defenses against being eaten before the seeds mature. Possibly because the capsaicin acts directly on the nerves of the tongue and mouth, birds do not seem to be affected by it. This is why chilies are sometimes ground into birdseed to prevent squirrels from eating it. For the purpose of this article, the term "chilies" will be used to refer to all capsaicin-containing or "hot" peppers.

Surprisingly, chilies have been eaten in the Americas much longer than in Asia. Native Americans have been eating them for at least 7,000 years; both North and South American cultures domesticated various species of chile peppers. Many historians believe they were brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus, and subsequently made their way to India, Thailand, China, and Japan, where they have become a staple vegetable and spice only in the most recent centuries.

In addition to adding zest to food, there are other uses for capsaicin. It has long been used medicinally as a salve or balm to reduce pain. It is applied topically and may overwhelm the pain receptors for a time, blocking the nerves from sending pain signals to the brain. Capsaicin is also used by law enforcement as pepper spray in crowd control situations and by individuals to thwart an attacker. Pest control is yet another use of capsaicin, such as the birdseed mentioned above or as a spray to repel animals from garden plants.

Capsaicin is odorless and colorless and has no flavor, so we typically don't know we have eaten too much until it's too late. The sensation is familiar: the mouth burns, the eyes water, the nose runs, and the face perspires. To reduce these reactions, try drinking milk or eating yogurt. Water is not particularly effective, since capsaicin is oily, and will not mix readily with water. Since the capsaicin is most concentrated in the white inner ribs and seeds, removing those portions of the pepper and using only the flesh is a good preventative measure to reduce the incendiary impact.

Those who eat hot peppers on a regular basis are able to tolerate them better than those who consume a milder diet. Despite claims of health benefits and risks attributed to the consumption of chilies, there is no incontrovertible evidence of either. Some studies have indicated capsaicin may decrease the size of certain tumors, though further research is needed to determine if it can be used to successfully treat cancer. It was thought at one time that excessive consumption of chilies caused ulcers, but there is no evidence to support this. There is certainly no medical reason not to eat as many chilies or as much hot sauce as can be comfortably consumed and digested.

To provide some perspective, the hottest of all peppers, the habanero, is about 60 times hotter than a jalapeno. Pure capsaicin is about 3,000 times hotter than a jalapeno or 50 times hotter than a habanero. However unpleasant an excess of capsaicin in the mouth, getting some in the eyes is far more painful. So when cooking or eating hot peppers, never rub your eyes!

I do some pretty strenuous hiking. I've been told I shouldn't drink caffeine, since it will dehydrate me. True?

In general, it is not true. You may safely consume caffeinated beverages, such as colas, in moderation before or during exercise. There is some evidence that caffeine is a mild diuretic, but in moderate amounts it may actually improve your endurance and will not dehydrate you in any significant way. Some athletes even use caffeine as a performance-enhancing drug, though they are likely to consume it in pill form, not as a beverage. Both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) have set limits on the allowable amount of caffeine in an athlete's bloodstream.

However, the TechKnow Guy recommends drinking water when you hike. Some "sports drinks" will help maintain your electrolyte levels during prolonged or intense exercise, but for most people taking a day hike, water will work just fine. If you consume caffeine every day, you may want to take some before your hike to preclude the symptoms of withdrawal, which include headache and irritability.

Finally, wait until you are home or back in camp for the night to recount your hiking adventures over an alcoholic beverage. Unlike caffeine, alcohol is dehydrating and should never be consumed during exercise. It also impairs your balance, reflexes, resistance to cold, and judgment. This is a very bad idea when exploring a wilderness area.

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