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Fire in the Garden by Chuck Voigt

Capsicum: Herb of the Year 2016

Charles E. Voigt


University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Department of Crop Sciences

W-503 Turner Hall, Urbana IL 61801

(217) 333-1969 - Fax (217) 244-3469

When the author was a young 4-H vegetable gardener, hot peppers were something exotic, not something in every garden or kitchen. Hungarian Wax, a hot banana pepper, was about the only one commonly available in east-central Illinois. Since then, waves of immigrants have brought a broad range of cuisines to the US, with accompanying hot pepper diversity. Coupled with Americans eating out much more than they did in the 1950s, this has exposed people to the zing that hot peppers can bring to eating. Some have embraced it wholeheartedly, while others approach with more caution.

Why is the confusing name "pepper" used? Well, when Christopher Columbus "discovered" peppers, or chiles, (Capsicum species) on a Caribbean island in 1492, he was searching for true pepper, Piper nigrum. Since the burning sensation each produced was similar, and he was eager to justify his conclusion that he had reached India, or the Spice Islands, he dubbed them "peppers." In fact, Native Americans probably began using and domesticating these plants at least 6,000-10,000 years earlier, in or near, what is today Bolivia.

After Columbus returned to Spain carrying seeds and dried pods of Capsicum, it took only 20 years for this plant to travel and become popular all over Europe and Asia, and as far away as Indonesia and the "Spice Islands" which Columbus originally sought to find. Dubbed "the poor man's spice,' it was quickly adopted where it traveled, to the extent that people all over the world soon thought they had always had chile peppers in their lands. Chile pepper has become the most frequently used seasoning and condiment in the world. It is a spice for all levels of society, cheap enough for the least affluent peasant, and complex enough for royal palates.

The unacclimated human palate can detect the presence of capsaicin, the chemical which produces the "heat," at levels as small as one part per million. Capsaicin is really a group of related chemical compounds which produce the burning sensation, but which do not actually affect temperature. Each of these 7 capsaicinoids has a slightly different mode of action, which is why different peppers affect taste in different ways. Some bite the front of the tongue, while others "sneak up" farther back.

The heat index of a chile pepper is measured in "Scoville Units," using a method developed by Wilbur Scoville in 1912. It is based on sequential dilutions until it can no longer be detected. This pungency is measured in multiples of 100 Scoville Units (SCU) ranging from the sweet bell pepper at zero on the scale, to the extremely hot habanero at 200,000 to 300,000 SCU. Newer discoveries and breeding have resulted in concentrations of over 2 million SCU in individual fruits. Pure capsaicin is rated at 16 million SCU, so these peppers are one eighth capsaicin, by weight, a staggering concentration. The white placenta, the ribs or membranes within the pepper fruits, contain up to 80% of the capsaicin in the peppers. Seeds themselves do not produce the chemical, but pick it up by being attached to the membrane within the pepper fruit. Neither cooking nor freezing diminishes

the pungency, but removing the veins and seeds is reasonably successful in lowering the heat. Chilehead purists would surely call this a crime against peppers.

Water stress on pepper plants can increase pungency, while an overabundance of moisture may lower the overall heat. Cooler than normal weather can also lower the heat, while hot temperatures and bright sunlight produce the highest levels of capsaicin. For this reason, parts of the desert southwestern US have the reputation of producing the most fiery pepper pods. While this may be true to some extent, some really pungent peppers can be grown almost anywhere in the US.

Capsaicin is not water soluble, so water and water-based drinks will not douse the heat induced by eating hot peppers. Since they are soluble in alcohol, drinks high in ethanol can help move the chemical out of the mouth. Casein in milk can also surround the molecules and carry them on their way, so dairy products, the fattier the better, may help. The fat in these dairy products is effective in surrounding and defusing the heat-generating compounds. Finally, absorbent materials like crusty bread, crackers, and chips may help soak up the heat and clear the palate.

Fresh chilies are high in vitamin C, containing twice as much as citrus fruits. They are also high in vitamin A, folic acid, potassium, and vitamin E. Dried, they lose most of their vitamin C, but the vitamin A content increases drastically.

Eating foods spiced with hot varieties of Capsicum can be addictive. The painful heat sensation actually causes the body to produce endorphins, the body's natural pain killers. These endorphins bring on a mild state of euphoria. Like other stimulants, the body gradually becomes acclimated to lower levels of capsaicin, and requires higher and higher amounts for the same endorphin buzz. This is why those addicted to this sensation need hotter and hotter peppers to keep the buzz coming.

Hot peppers should be handled with care, especially the profoundly hot varieties. They should be chopped or processed in a well-ventilated area. One should not touch their eyes, nose, mouth, or any other moist body orifice, or intense and lasting pain may result. After handling, hands should be washed thoroughly in soapy water, scrubbing with a brush. The most ferociously hot varieties can actually irritate and blister the skin. Plastic or rubber gloves or other protective wear may be advisable, especially when working with large quantities. Eye protection might also be helpful.

To neutralize the burning on hands or other strictly external body parts, a mixture of one part household bleach to five parts water can be used. Hands should be washed in the solution and rinsed thoroughly. This bleach solution should never be used on eyes or other moist orifices.

The best that can be done for eyes and other moist burning orifices is to flush with plain cold water. This will sting like crazy for a while, but should not cause permanent damage. This is the theory behind the concentrated pepper sprays used today in place of the more dangerous mace. Concentrated capsaicin can be as debilitating as mace, usually with much less chance of permanent damage, compared to mace.

One of the main reasons for developing the Scoville Scale was to standardize capsaicin for treatments for chronic pain. These "deep heating rubs" give their warming chemical "heat," the pain of which overloads the body's pain sensors, causing them to cease sending pain messages for a time, giving temporary relief.

Though perennial in their native habitat, peppers are grown as annuals in the temperate regions of the world, including most of the United States. By starting the seeds indoors or in greenhouses, the shorter warm growing seasons of much of the lower 48 states can accommodate

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