One Hot Bite!
What makes hot peppers so spicy?
Why can chomping on a chili pepper bring tears to your eyes and make your mouth feel like it’s burning up? A chili pepper’s fire comes from a chemical called capsaicin that covers the seeds. The more capsaicin a pepper contains, the hotter it tastes. A mild bell pepper doesn’t have any capsaicin, but a spicy jalapeño does. Yet a jalapeño’s fiery kick is nothing compared with that of a Trinidad Moruga Scorpion chili. With more than 200 times the heat of a jalapeño, the scorpion holds the current world record for the hottest pepper on the planet!
Hot peppers’ spicy flavor is an adaptation, a trait the plants developed over time to help them survive, explains Eleanor Sterling. She is the director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. She’s also the curator of its current exhibition, Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture. The peppers’ flavor punch keeps mammals away. This is important for protecting the plants’ seeds. When mammals eat peppers, they might chew up the seeds and destroy them. Mammals’ distaste for capsaicin keeps peppers’ seeds safe. It’s also why some people spray pepper extract on their gardens to keep out animals like deer.
Birds, on the other hand, can handle the spice. They swallow pepper seeds whole. Then they fly away and spread the seeds far and wide, helping the plant reproduce. “The seeds come out in bird droppings in nice little fertilized packages,” says Sterling.
Humans don’t have birds’ ability to gulp capsaicin with no effects. But even though peppers can burn our tongues, eating them has some advantages. Cooking with chili peppers can keep food from spoiling and making people sick. That’s because capsaicin is antimicrobial—it kills organisms that make food go bad. Pepper plants also use this characteristic to protect themselves against microbial pests.
Hot peppers are even used in medicine. Skin cream made with capsaicin can help relieve arthritis and back pain. Thousands of years ago, the ancient Maya used peppers to treat asthma, coughs, and sore throats.
Want to avoid eating the spiciest part of a chili? Beware of the white part, where the seeds attach to the pepper. If you do take a bite that makes your mouth burn, drink a glass of milk. It contains molecules that grab onto capsaicin and wash it away. But if you eat a pepper as hot as the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, milk won’t beat that heat. Your mouth may take days to cool off!
The American Museum of Natural History is home to a new exhibition called Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture, which runs from November 17, 2012, to August 11, 2013. Explore the world of food on a journey from farm to table—through growing, trading, cooking, tasting, eating, and celebrating. To learn more, go to www.amnh.org.