Friday, October 12, 2012

What Makes a Chili Pepper Spicy?

The chili pepper was first cultivated and bred for its spiciness in Central America, hundreds of years before any part of the rest of the world enjoyed it.  During this time, ancient Americans spiced all kinds of food with the chili.  In the southwest United States, Native Americans would gather wild chiltepine chilis and protect the plants for future use.  Aztecs were said to enjoy hot cocoa spiced with chili peppers.  When explores from the Old World began visiting North and South America in the 1500's they brought the chili to the rest of the world.  Now, the spiciness of the chili pepper has captured the taste buds of nearly the entire world.

It is amazing how the spiciness of the chili has been utilized in nearly every cuisine possible.  Even if a recipe is not made with the spice of chilis many people will put some sort of spicy sauce on it.  Think about Tabasco Sauce. people will put it on just about everything.  There is probably someone that puts it on there cold cereal in the morning.  The odd thing is, spicy flavor is painful and for some reason people like the pain (myself included).  Enjoying the spicy pain is a learned taste and some people can build-up quite a tolerance.  At least for decades, if not for centuries and millenniums, people have been trying to breed the next spiciest chili pepper.  It seemed for years the habanero held the record for spiciest chili.  In recent years a number of chili's have claimed to be the spiciest in the world.  Recently, the ghost pepper, also known as the naga bhut jolokia, from India held the title of worlds spiciest chili.  Now the trinidad moruga scorpion pepper holds the official Guinness World Record for spiciest chili. 

The secret to the chili's spiciness is the molecule capsicum.  This molecule is secreted by the white tissues holding the seeds inside the pepper.  Capsicum binds with pain receptors in the mouth responsible for detecting heat, therefore giving the spicy heat chilis are known for.  The body then responds by increasing perspiration, raising heart rate, and releasing endorphins.  Capsicum also has been shown to kill certain types of cancer cells and may indirectly aid weight loss.  In the wild, birds love spicy chili's, and mammals generally hate the spiciness (except for some humans of course).  When birds eat chili's the seeds pass through their digestive tract undamaged and can therefore germinate and grow if deposited in an ideal location.  The chewing and digestive tract of mammals however digests the seeds, preventing them from passing through the digestive tract.  This is exactly why chili peppers were spicy to begin with.  Caspicum deters mammals from eating them and to encourage birds to eat them, thus allowing the perpetuation of chili plants.  Cultivated varieties of chili's however are increasing in spiciness simply because humans are selectively breeding only the spiciest chili's in order to produce an even spicier chili. 

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