What makes peppers spicy?

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What makes peppers spicy?

How many of you love eating spicy food? Well, me too.

Have you ever wondered why are peppers spicy ? What makes them spicy? What chemicals or natural stuff is packed inside it that some of these peppers can cause a runny nose and inflamed throat?

Capsaicin is an active component of chili peppers, which are plants belonging to the genus Capsicum. It is the actual component that makes peppers spicy. It is an irritant for mammals, including humans, and produces a sensation of burning when it comes in contact with any tissue or cell of the human body. The higher concentration of capsaicin is in the inner wall, where the seeds are attached to the fruits of the genus Capsicum. Birds mainly disperse the seeds of Capsicum plants. Capsicum family includes jalapeno peppers, cayenne peppers, and other chili peppers.

Capsaicin is a colorless and odorless chemical found only in the family of Capsicum. It binds with neurons and tricks your body into thinking that it is burning when no physical burning is taking place in real. Specifically, what is going on is that capsaicin binds to the vanilloid receptor (VR1). By binding, it activates VR1 receptors and produces a sensation or sends a signal to the brain that something is burning. Normal heat will release during this process, and no actual burning will take place. That is why eating peppers make your mouth feel hot, even though it’s not. 

Capsaicin in chili peppers is measured on the Scoville scale and expressed in terms of Scoville Heat Units (SHU). The SHU is a method that measures how many drops of sugar are required to dilute the heat of any given pepper. Their range extends from hundreds of thousands to even millions for the hottest peppers. High-Performance Liquid Chromatography soon replaced this sugar water method. It is a technique that detects the chemical fingerprint of capsaicin in pepper and can measure precisely how much capsaicin that pepper contains.

Bell peppers, a member of the Capsicum family, interestingly, do not contain any capsaicin and thus register zero Scoville units. The seeds of the pepper do not contain any capsaicin at all. The white membrane inside a pepper contains the most capsaicin, and the actual flesh of the pepper contains less. It causes a burning sensation when it comes in contact with any part of the skin apart from being the source of heat or pungency when we consume it.

Capsaicin is an oil-like compound, which means that it repels water. Therefore, drinking water to soothe the burning caused by eating chilis is not effective until the water happens to be very cold. Capsaicin is soluble in milk and alcohol, however. So, a sip of milk or a cold alcoholic beverage can soothe the burning feeling from capsaicin. Besides milk, other dairy products like yogurt or sour cream will help cool the burn from hot pepper.

Interestingly, while all the members are sensitive to capsaicin, rabbits and other garden pets seem immune to it. Also, birds do not have any burning sensation and can easily digest it.

Capsaicin may also stimulate the production of endorphins, which is why some people experience a sense of euphoria, a feeling of intense excitement, after eating it.

Capsaicin has many applications in daily life, as well. It is a pain reliever and also an active ingredient in pepper spray. The real potent pepper sprays, when used for defense purposes, can cause permanent damage to someone’s eye. 

It’s always best to speak with your doctor if you are concerned about the quantity of daily consumption of peppers as some hot peppers may also cause indigestion, heartburn, or other stomach issues.

Until Next Time,

Team Doctor ASKY!

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