Chili Pepper 101
Garden to Table
April 30, 2007
Chili Pepper 101
Some like it hot. And no one does hot better than the tasty, mouth-watering chili pepper.
Legendary for their texture and taste, chili peppers have long been a staple in Mexican, Latin
and South American cooking, as well as a favorite addition to many dishes native to the
Southwestern U.S. One day, thanks to the effects of capsaicin, the substance that lends chili
peppers their heat, they may even cure cancer.
Tasting chili peppers has become something of an art form over the years, with the most
experienced tasters learning to accurately determine different levels of heat with their own
senses. Those with less discerning palates have their pick of various scientific tests with the
Scoville index being the most common.
Developed in 1912 by chemist Wilbur Scoville, a trained panel of tasters measures heat as
Scoville Heat Units (SHU) in a given weight of fruit tissue. If your tongue can't handle the heat,
capsaicin content can also be measured in parts per million (PPM) by a machine called a high
pressure liquid chromatograph (HPLC), in which case a conversion factor of 15 is used to convert
between PPM and SHU.
In layman's terms? Sweet peppers have 0 SHU, chilis with a slight bite may have 100 to 500
SHU, and blistering habaneros? Between 200,000 and 300,000 SHU. The Bhut Jolokia pepper,
considered by the Guinness World Records to be the world's hottest chili pepper, tops the scale
at a whopping 1,001,304 Scoville Heat Units. Since heat is relative, and people have different
tolerances for heat in their food, SHU's can be extremely useful in more accurately labeling
products designated as "mild," "medium" or "hot."
But the chili pepper's appeal extends well beyond its heat factor - which is actually concentrated
in the chili membrane, not the seeds, contrary to what most people believe. Dr. Terry Berke, the
senior plant breeder for hot peppers at Seminis Vegetable Seeds in Woodland, California, says
that tasting peppers is like tasting wine. It is, he says, an experience filled with delicate nuances.
"You bite into a small piece, roll it around your mouth, and spit it out, noting things like mouthfeel (or crunchiness), sweetness, pungency, aroma and flavor. In the case of green bell peppers,
their characteristic aroma - resulting from the chemical 3-isobutyl 2-methoxy pyrazine [a
chemical produced by the plant] - is particularly distinct."
So distinct, in fact, that the human tongue can detect the chemical at 2 nanograms per liter.
That's equivalent to approximately one drop in a swimming pool. Interestingly, Berke says, this
chemical is also found in the aroma of roasted coffee.
With dozens of varieties to choose from, and an incredible range of exotic flavors, peppers
truly shine in a bevy of creative, diverse recipes. One mythic Mexican dish, called "Stuffed
Xoloitzcuintles," highlights ancho and pasilla peppers stuffed into the gut of a hairless dog -
a dish that is, according to the recipe, "low in fat and cholesterol and high in protein." Less
adventurous, though no less tasty fare ranges from the jalapeño-based "Seconds" dish, created
in honor of a recent presidential inauguration, to the health-conscious "Grilled Chili Rellenos," a
modern twist on a traditional Cinco de Mayo dish filled with poblano, jalapeños, and bell peppers.
Peppers are native to the Americas, so they have been used for centuries to spice up bland foods
with a corn or potato base. Now, they may also be utilized for their health benefits. University
of Pittsburgh researchers were able to induce apoptosis (natural cell death) in cancer cells by
feeding capsaicin orally to mice with human pancreatic tumors. The American Journal of Clinical
Nutrition found that meals containing chili peppers reduced the amount of insulin required to
lower blood sugar after a meal - a fact that could potentially help diabetics.
Don't start that spicy weight-loss diet just yet, however. All the tests are preliminary. Still,
there's no denying that in addition to being rich in vitamins C and A, peppers are, according to
Berke, the only vegetable in the world with a dedicated cult following.
"I'm a certified chili-head," Berke adds. And no, he hasn't tasted the xoloitzcuintles. Not yet, at