How Stuff Works: Red Hot Chili Peppers!

By: Carlos Bryan M. Tecson

You may have experienced the burning sensation when eating a hot spicy food before, may it be from Korean noodles, Mexican food, and many other more, for this week’s How Stuff Works, I will be discussing about Chili Peppers. Surely, almost everyone have tasted this little guys before, burning everyone’s tongues and refusing to be wash downed with water. Anyways, I will be talking about what compounds are inside these guys that make your tongues burn.

Chili peppers are composed of many compounds, but the thing that makes them painfully hot is the compound called capsaicin. Capsaicin is vanilloid, a compound containing a functional group called vanillyl group, which is an irritant for mammals, including humans, that produces that painful burning sensation when ingesting a chili pepper. Capsaicinoids, capsaicin itself and other compounds produced by chili peppers, binds to a receptor in the mucous membrane of the mouth when ingested; the receptor is actually linked with heat. So when the Capsaicinoids bind to your mouth, it produces the burning sensation. If Capsaicinoids are repeatedly ingested, it actually depletes the receptor. Meaning, you can actually build up tolerance. The painful burning sensation produces endorphins, a compound that acts as natural painkillers of the body. Capsaicin is actually a toxic compound but chili peppers don’t have high enough capsaicin content to be harmful. Capsaicin is not only found in chili, it is also used in pepper spray, and of course, in low concentrations as its inflammatory effects can cause the eyes to close.

The heat of chilies are measured in many ways, one is the Scoville scale. Scoville scale is a taste test in which a measured extract from peppers are diluted with a solution of water and sugar.

There is a common myth in removing the painful sensation produced by chilies. Many people believes that drinking water will remove it, however that’s not true. Capsaicin molecule is actually hydrophobic, making it not soluble in water, however it is readily soluble in alcohol and oil. Alcohol in beer still can’t remove the hotness because it is too low in concentration. The most practical thing you can do to remove the hotness is to drink milk. Milk has a protein called casein, which is lipophilic, can be dissolved in fats, oils, lipids, etc., and it can remove the Capsaicin molecules.

Capsaicin may burn your tongues but studies say that it can prevent cancer.  Capsaicin prevents growth and destroys prostate cancer cells without harming the other cells. Capsaicin binds to the membranes of the cancer cells, and then they pull it apart – destroying it. So, some good can be seen from these little guys.

Chili peppers have been an important thing in our world today, used in many culinary dishes, defined the culture of many places, used in many commercial products like pepper spray and many more. With the some technical terms discussed, I hope that you learned something new about how chili works.

References: (picture)


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