Why are Chili Peppers Hot?

Chili Peppers are not unique to one country or culture. A glance at food history tells us that nearly every nation on earth has some form of spicy food; evidence of hot pepper cultivation dates back to almost 4,000 BC. But the love of hot foods is exclusive to humans. The rest of the animals on this planet either lack the neurological receptors to register hot food or they avoid them altogether, lumping them in with other poisonous plants and animals. Capsaicin, the spicy chemical compound found in peppers, may have developed in plants in part as a defense mechanism, to keep animals from eating them and therefore prolong life and reproduction.

We have evolved as a species to like hot food, and I don’t mean spicy. Humans used to eat only cold food, things we foraged and hunted. Then we learned to cook with fire and our bodies evolved to like that flavor. Capsaicin mimics the effects of heat on food in our brain. It tricks our brains into thinking our tongues are quite literally on fire. In our brains the sensations of pleasure and pain greatly overlap. They both rely on nerve endings in the brain stem, and our love of heat is nothing more than these two systems working together. Pain and pleasure both release endorphins and cause motivation. But one of the main factors that persuades us to consume them is the desire for relief. Once eaten, we have survived a challenging task, our brains flood the body with endorphins and we feel a sense of relief which is incredibly gratifying.

Chili pepper heat is measured by the Scoville Scale, developed in 1912 by an American scientist named Wilbur Scoville. The scale tests the amount of sugar solution needed to offset the heat contained in a pepper. Heat in any pepper is concentrated in the seeds and ribs, and if you like the flavor of chilis but don’t want the heat then you can simply cut those out. In addition to tastebuds, our tongues are loaded with millions of pain receptors as well. Capsaicin comes in contact with those receptors and binds to them, signaling a burning sensation in the brain. The amazing thing here is that no physical damage is occurring, even though it’s the same sensation as holding your hand to a flame.

Like I said earlier, chili peppers are not unique to one country, they exist almost everywhere and our taste for spicy foods is international. Let’s take a look at hot sauces around the world. Starting at home, in America! Hot sauces produced here tend to be high in vinegar, think of Tabasco and Frank’s Red Hot. Moving south, when we reach Mexico the vinegar is dialed back and we start to get a wider variety of peppers, some of them smoked (a chipotle pepper is nothing more than a smoked jalapeño). Chili peppers were unique to the Americas, but in the 16th century they skipped the ocean as Spain and Portugal began their conquest of the western hemisphere, bringing the heat to Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Moving east then, we find Harissa in Northern Africa, a dark, smokey paste often mixed in with grains or smeared on grilled fish. In Indonesia we have another paste, called Sambal, which has some sweetness from sugar. As we travel to Vietnam and Thailand we begin to add fermented flavors to the chilis, mostly with shrimp paste and fish sauce. Fermentation takes the spotlight in Korea where gochujang is slowly produced from chilis, soy beans, and rice. In the Caribbean many hot sauces blend fruit, spices, herbs and chili peppers together to make sweet/spicy amalgamations! Check out this fabulous recipe for Jamaican Jerk Hot Sauce!

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