Hot pepper seedss, of course, are used because of they contain capsaicinoids. The most notable capsaicinoid is called capsaicin, a crystalline substance found almost entirely in the pithy flesh that holds the seeds in place inside the chili. The seeds and skin contain very little, if any, capsaicin. When eaten, capsaicin is detected by heat receptors in the mouth, and the brain responds as though something hot (in terms of temperature) has been consumed. This increases the heart rate, causes perspiration, and the release of endorphins into the blood stream. The result is that (for those that like chilies) the heat “feels good.”
In 1912, American chemist Wilbur Scoville devised what he called the “Scoville Organoleptic Test” as a means to measure the relative hotness or piquancy of chili peppers. Although it is somewhat subjective, the Scoville Scale (as it is known) is still used by growers and makers of hot sauce to rate piquancy by so-called Scoville Heat Units (SHU).
Scoville would mix the extract of each chili with corn syrup or a solution of sugar and water, and then a panel of five or six independent observers would taste the solution. If they still detected any heat, more sugar syrup would be added – over and over until the rating was 0. Scoville would then judge by what percentage the peppers needed watering down to reach this point. Bell peppers, which contain no capsaicin, have a Scoville rating of 0, while very hot peppers have ratings in the 100,000 to 350,000 SHU range. Scoville’s ratings, it should be noted, were largely based on the spiciness of dried chilies. Raw chilies are less spicy by approximately one order of magnitude. Pure capsaicin is considered to rate 15 million to 16 million SHU.
Capsaicin is not water soluble, so the best way to reduce the burning sensation in the mouth is to consume dairy products like milk or yoghurt. Milk contains a phosphoprotein that acts as a detergent allowing capsaicin to be washed away. Many studies have been performed on capsaicin and its effects on human health. It seems to play a role in regulating the production of insulin, in the conversion of bad cholesterol, and in weight control for people who are obese. Capsaicin has also been seen to kill cancer cells in laboratory rats.
Chili peppers range from mild to extremely hot. Jalapenos are a good representation of medium heat. Thai, habanero, and Scotch bonnet chilies are much hotter than jalapenos, while anchos are comparatively mild. In the northeast of India grows a naturally occurring hybrid between C. chinense and C. frutescens, known as the bhut jolokia. This little three-inch devil is considered to rate an astonishing 850,000 to 1 million SHU – some 400 times hotter than Tabasco Sauce, by far the hottest chili ever known. Indeed, the government of India has grown the plants for use in weapons research.
Many evolutionary biologists feel that the presence of capsaicinoids in chilies is the result of co-evolution with birds, for birds lack the pain receptors that mammals have, so they do not feel any pain when they eat chilies. The small fruits are nutritious, but the seeds can pass through the gut of a bird unharmed, which makes the bird a very useful means of seed distribution.
In much of the world, food laced with spicy chilies is simply part of the daily routine. In the West, though, the novelty of chilies has led to a vast array of hot sauces. Whole retail outlets can be found that sell only hot sauces and foods that celebrate the chili pepper. Chili con carne is such a popular dish in America, and chili cook-offs have become so ubiquitous that they are now sanctioned by the non-profit International Chili Society.
Chili festivals abound in North America, but perhaps Hatch, New Mexico (which dubs itself the Chili Capital of the World) takes the prize with its annual Hatch Chili Festival, a two-day event in early September that has been running for nearly 40 years. The list of events features live music, a horseshoe tournament, a parade, a charity auction, a rope and bullwhip show, a chili toss, and of course, a chili eating contest.