Almost everyone has had that experience of their eyes tearing when they get a whiff of a hot pepper. And WATCH OUT! When cooking with them, the residue on your hands can cause a severe burn if you rub your eyes. But what is it that gives a pepper its heat? There’s a chemical capsaicin that packs that punch in even the smallest of peppers. It’s this chemical that makes your eyes tear, nose run and mouth feel like it’s on fire.
How Do You Measure the Heat of a Pepper?
The heat in a pepper is measured in something called SHUs, or Scoville Heat Units. Named for an American chemist, each unit is the measure of a pepper’s “burn.” The numbers mentioned are the usual average for the species, as the SHU can vary based on the growing conditions as well as the species itself. The Chili Pepper Institute of New Mexico State University published a table of “hotness” for different species of peppers.
A sweet bell pepper, regardless of color, registers at 0 SHU, as there is no capsaicin in the species. A common crowd pleaser, the Jalapeno, which is usually used in Mexican cuisine, registers at 5,500 SHU. Cayenne, either in fresh or dried form, registers at nearly 5 times the jalapeno, at 23,000 SHU. One of the smallest, and perhaps most deceiving little peppers is the Scotch Bonnet, which packs a whopping 75,496 SHU. For all of those tobasco lovers out there, whether in the form of sauce or actual pepper, this long, thin red pepper holds 190,524 SHU. One of the hottest out there, the Bih/Bhut jolokia holds an outstanding 1,000,000+ SHU.
What are the Health Benefits of Hot Peppers?
National Geographic published a small article that discussed some of the health benefits of hot peppers. A husband and wife in Dorset, England had driven to a Pakistani market about an hour from their home and found what seemed to be a rather exotic pepper plant. The bought it and let it grow, cultivating what turned out to be one of the hottest pepper plants out there. But is there any benefit to this level of heat?
When handling any member of the jolokia family, the skin offers a protection to those who touch it, though when cut into, the flesh and the seeds will burn human skin on contact. However, the oils in some species of hot peppers are sometimes used in topical creams that are prescribed to treat arthritis symptoms. The heating sensation of capsaicin offers relief to joint stiffness and pain. It has also been said that capsaicin releases the same beta-endorphins that cause the “runner’s high.” Of course, grab the tissue box, as even a small amount of capsaicin will clear out the nasal passages.
Perhaps one of the better-known effects of this chemical is the heat-producing agent it causes in the body. For some, it is said to suppress appetite. The same studies run by New Mexico State University also show that capsaicin helps to increase metabolism.
Some Tips When Cooking with Hot Peppers
Though many enjoy the flavor of hot peppers, there are some precautions that should be taken when using them in food preparations. For those on the higher SHU reading, using gloves when preparing them is advisable as the oils can remain in the skin of your hand. For those who wear contacts, this can be dangerous when removing the lenses.
When using hot peppers, the heat is concentrated more in the seeds. For the flavor of the pepper without the highest heat, scrape the seeds out before chopping the pepper into recipes. Also as a rule of thumb, start off with less. You can always add more heat, but you can never take it away.
Hot peppers have been used in cuisines for over 3000 years. And while some cuisines go heavier on the spice than others, there are some health benefits to the capsaicin that’s packs the punch. It is said to aid the suffering of arthritis and certainly helps with the cleansing of sinuses, but remember, a little heat can go a long way.
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