Hurts So Good: Hot Peppers & Chiles
The Story Of Peppers
Somewhere between agony and ecstasy is the experience of having a hot pepper nearly burn your mouth off.
The experience of hot peppers ranges from completely benign (like that “extra mild” salsa that is basically just pasta sauce) to pleasantly rousing (like a few drops of hot sauce on a taco) to near-death experience (like when someone dared you to eat that pepper they serve as a garnish at that Indian restaurant you like and you had to eat all the cucumber raita before declaring yourself safe again).
Just like stinky cheeses and bitter chocolate, we are drawn to food that is not just good, but complex. Maybe even a little unpleasant.
Are we masochists? Or is our attraction to a sprinkle of pain in our culinary experience a primal knowing of what is good for us?
Human consumption of hot chile peppers date as far back as 7500 BC.
Peppers were first domesticated in Mexico, where they spread throughout Central and South America. When Christopher Columbus and his crew of European explorers encountered these spicy plants, they named them “pepper” due to the overlap in flavour with black pepper.
Although it was later discovered that these plants are from completely different botanical families (peppers like poblano, jalapeño, and cayenne are from the Capsicum family, whereas peppercorns are from the Piper family), the name stuck. Eventually, peppers were distributed across Asia via Portuguese traders, and today, Asia produces some of the spiciest cuisines, thanks to the proliferation of the Capsicum family.
There are many different types of peppers. Some are distinct varieties, and some are actually the same variety with a different name depending on when the plant was harvested or how it was processed.
For example, even though we think of green peppers and bell peppers as distinct varieties, they actually come from the same plant. Green peppers are harvested when green and immature, but turn cherry red if left on the vine to ripen and become bell peppers. Similarly, jalapeño and chipotle peppers are also from the same plant. The name jalapeño refers to the fresh green or red pepper, whereas chipotle refers to when this plant has been dried by smoke.
In addition to coming in a range of sizes and colours, peppers come in a range of flavours and spice level. Once again, this can range from completely undetectable to call-the-fire-department.
Spice level is commonly measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU) and refers to the concentration of capsaicin, a compound in peppers that binds to pain receptors and creates a sensation of pain and burning.
Peppers in the Capsicum family are ranked by SHU’s on a scale. Consulting this scale* can be useful for consumers looking to try new peppers, without the surprise of choosing one above their pain tolerance.
As a reference point, bell peppers have a score of 0 SHU, while pure capsaicin has a score of 16,000,000 SHU.
(Note that SHU’s are not completely predictable, even within the same plant. This is why they are often represented in a range. Spice level depends on where and how the plant was grown and harvested, and may vary crop to crop.)
855,000 – 2,480,000: Dragon’s Breath, Naga pepper, Carolina Reaper, Komodo Dragon Chile pepper, Trinidad Scorpion pepper, Infinity Chilli, Ghost pepper
100,000 – 350,000: Habanero chile, Scotch bonnet pepper, Datil pepper, Rocoto, Madame Jeanette, Bird’s eye chile
50,000 – 100,000: Malagueta pepper, Chiltepin pepper, Piri piri
30,000 – 50,000: Guntur chilli, Cayenne pepper, Ají pepper, Tabasco pepper
10,000 – 30,000: Serrano pepper, Peter pepper, Chile de árbol, Aleppo pepper, Peperoncino
3,500 – 10,000: Guajillo pepper, Jalapeño/Chipotle, Wax pepper
1,000 – 3,500: Anaheim pepper, Pasilla pepper, Poblano/Ancho pepper
100 – 1,000: Banana pepper, Cubanelle, paprika
*Adapted from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scoville_scale
In addition to providing that piquant flavour, the capsaicin in Capsicum plants also have medicinal benefits.
Let’s take a look at what the research says:
Blood sugar regulation: High doses of capsicum may help to reduce blood sugar, due to its stimulating effect on the pancreas. 
Metabolism & weight loss: Capsaicin extract may help to increase metabolism. It does this by increasing thermogenesis (the body’s capacity to produce heat and energy), and by increasing fat oxidation (the body’s ability to metabolize fats).  High doses may also suppress appetite .
Topical analgesic: Capsaicin extract may help to reduce pain when applied topically . It can be effective at reducing pain due to arthritis, post-exercise muscle soreness, strains/sprains, neuralgias, or other benign aches. Look for creams or ointments that have a capsaicin concentration between 0.25% – 1%. Higher concentrations may irritate the skin. Do not use on broken skin.
Although hot peppers have the above benefits, it’s important to note that they may also cause side effects in susceptible individuals.
Food or supplements that contain significant amounts of capsaicin are not suitable for those who are prone to acid reflux, irritated digestive tracts, loose bowels, or ulcers.
Whether you are consuming hot peppers for their exciting flavour, or for their health benefits, start with peppers on the lower range of the SHU scale, and work your way up to your comfort level.
For some people, this comfort level might be delightfully uncomfortable. And maybe that’s the point.
Pepper inspired? Our friend Judith Finlayson, author of The Chile Pepper bible shared three delicious recipes with us:
Alex Picot-Annand, BA (Psych), Registered Holistic Nutritionist & Certified Life Coach