Introduction and description
Chili or chilli pepper ( from the Nahuatl chilli) is the fruit of plants from the genus Capsicum, members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae.
Peppers are commonly broken down into three groupings: bell peppers, sweet peppers, and hot peppers. It is the hot peppers that I am describing here.
There are five domesticated species of chili peppers:
- Capsicum annuum, which includes many common varieties such as cayenne, jalapeños, and the chiltepin
- Capsicum frutescens, which includes malagueta, tabasco and Thai peppers, piri piri, African birdseye chili, Malawian Kambuzi
- Capsicum chinense, which includes the hottest peppers such as the naga, habanero, Datil and Scotch bonnet
- Capsicum pubescens, which includes the South American rocoto peppers
- Capsicum baccatum, which includes the South American aji peppers
The substances that give chili peppers their intensity when ingested or applied topically are capsaicin (8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide) and several related chemicals, collectively called capsaicinoids of which more in a moment.
Chili peppers have the distinction of being a fruit which if used selectively can heal and which if not used selectively can blow your head off and give you hallucinations. I found a few websites for chili pepper afficionados whose comments were so funny, they are included as observations even though I doubt if they are true. Chili peppers seem to attract a rather unique individual with a touch of the joker about them - or magician.
Chili peppers have been used since at least 7500 BC. There is archaeological evidence at sites located in southwestern Ecuador that chili peppers were domesticated more than 6000 years ago. Chili peppers originated in the Americas. After the Columbian Exchange, many cultivars of chili pepper spread across the world. From Mexico, chili peppers spread rapidly into Europe, the Philippines and then to India, China, Indonesia, Korea and Japan.
The "heat" of chili peppers was historically measured in Scoville heat units (SHU), which is a measure of how much a chili extract must be diluted in sugar syrup before its heat becomes undetectable to a panel of tasters. Bell peppers rank at 0 SHU, New Mexico green chillis at about 1,500 SHU, jalapeños at 2,500–5,000 SHU, and habaneros at 300,000 SHU.
According to the Guinness World Records, as of March 1, 2011, the world's hottest chili pepper is the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper. A laboratory test conducted in March, 2011 measured a specimen of Trinidad Scorpion Butch T at 1,463,700 Scoville heat units. Other horrendously hot chillis include
- the bhut jolokia, also known as the ghost pepper.
- the Naga Viper pepper at 1,382,118 SHU.
- the Infinity chilli grown in Grantham, England. This chilli rates at 1,067,286 units on the Scoville scale
Capsaicin and several related compounds are called capsaicinoids and are produced as a secondary metabolite by chili peppers, probably as deterrents against certain herbivores and fungi. Capsaicin (8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide, (CH3)2CHCH=CH(CH2)4CONHCH2C6H3-4-(OH)-3-(OCH3) is the active component of chili peppers and the main capsaicinoid in chili peppers, followed by dihydrocapsaicin.
These two compounds are also about twice as potent to the taste and nerves as the minor capsaicinoids nordihydrocapsaicin, homodihydrocapsaicin, and homocapsaicin.
In large quantities, capsaicin can cause death. Symptoms of overdose include difficulty breathing, blue skin, and convulsions. But, the large amount needed to kill an adult human and the low concentration of capsaicin in chilies make the risk of accidental poisoning by chili consumption quite low.
If you get any capsaicin on areas of your body which cause appalling pain, the caseins in milk have a detergent effect on capsaicin. Cold sugar solution (10%) at 20 °C (68 °F) is almost as effective. This is why very hot curry with yoghurt is not as painful.
Capsaicin [the active ingredient] can also be washed off the skin using soap, shampoo, or other detergents, or rubbed off with oily compounds such as vegetable oil, paraffin oil, petroleum jelly (Vaseline), or creams. Plain water is ineffective at removing capsaicin, as are vinegar, bleach, and topical antacid suspensions. The burning sensation will slowly fade away in about 6–8 hours (maximum) if no actions are taken.
Don’t eat hot chillis if you are taking the high-blood pressure drug Lisinopril, as Capsaicin interacts with the drug.
Pain and pleasure
Capsaicin is a TRPV1 agonist.
One of the functions of TRPV1 is detection and regulation of body temperature. TRPV1 is a heat activated calcium channel, which opens between 37 and 45 °C (98.6 and 113 °F, respectively). When capsaicin binds to TRPV1, it causes the channel to open below 37 °C (normal human body temperature), which is why capsaicin is linked to the sensation of heat. This is why we sweat after eating chillies.
Next, TRPV1 is also involved in the transmission and modulation of pain (nociception), as well as the integration of diverse painful stimuli. The activation of TRPV1 leads to a painful, burning sensation. By binding to the TRPV1 receptor, the capsaicin molecule produces the same sensation that excessive heat or abrasive damage would cause, explaining why the spiciness of capsaicin is described as a burning sensation. But, capsaicin in chilli peppers does not actually cause a chemical burn, or indeed any direct tissue damage at all.
Thus, the sequence is that when consumed, capsaicinoids bind with the pain receptors in the mouth and throat that are responsible for sensing heat. Once activated by the capsaicinoids, these receptors send a message to the brain that the person has consumed something hot – something seeringly hot, something that needs attention. The brain responds to the burning sensation by raising the heart rate, increasing perspiration and by release of endorphins.
Thus ultimately, the main cause of any forms of pleasure, highs, euphoria and so on are caused by the endorphins released. Endorphins ("endogenous morphine") are endogenous opioid peptides that are produced when anyone experiences extreme pain. They are thus the body’s natural pain killers. They are in effect the endogenous opiate in our body being able to produce analgesia and a feeling of well-being. They only kick in after extreme pain has been experienced for some time and are a protective mechanism, providing protection from pain that perhaps cannot be allayed.
For flavour and health - suppression
The seeds are what give chili peppers most of their heat, so if you want the flavour and not as much heat scrape away the seeds. And choose a pepper that is not intended to be a challenge, or as the man says..........
I said this last pepper eating post, but I am going to say it again. If you have to wear rubber gloves to touch it I am not putting it in my mouth.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:29 PM on November 10, 2011]
For the danger - overload
If you want the heat, the fear the terror then chillis are supplied fresh, dried or pickled, with their seeds. They can also be prepared as ‘hot sauces’. Here we have some that might be better classified as 'overload'.......
Blair’s after death sauce
Dave's Gourmet Insanity Sauce
and some advice from a user
My favourite peppers (unsurprisingly) are the peruvian ají varieties, all of which are scalding to various degrees. Ají mirasol/amarillo is bright and fruity and just a bit smoky and gives a nice long-lasting burn. Ají rocoto looks a bit like a tomato and has flesh as thick as a bell pepper with black seeds; its texture is almost juicy, it tastes of berries and fruits, and it is searingly hot. And then ají limo which is finger-shaped and comes in various colours; the flesh is thin and the flavor is more just bright colors and rawness, but the burn is like neon lights…it's great in small quantities in ceviche.
Ironically, I've developed such a tolerance for spicy, that I often will eat something that tastes fine, but then causes my digestive system to be very, very angry with me about a day later. When I last visited Lima, Peru, I bought a long braid of ají limo, brought it back to the apartment, and ate slices of it for breakfast on bread with queso fresco and violet olives. It was delicious and I had removed all the seeds, but after 3 breakfasts like that I wasn't able to digest anything for a full day. Lesson learned.
posted by LMGM at 1:32 PM on November 10, 2011
Inadvisable approaches and useful advice
Here I pass you over to the experts
I once got a blowjob from a chick right after she'd eaten some really hot peppers. Searing, brutal pain. For hours. Cold bath didn't help shit.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 8:11 PM on April 10, 2009
…there's this genius who thought it would be a good idea to snort a key bump of dried bhut jolokia powder. I wouldn't be surprised if he died shortly afterwards.
posted by DecemberBoy at 3:00 AM on November 11, 2011
and [and this sounds truly daft - the website is genuine]
this is the link to the reddit/boingboing post on Advice for a person contemplating rectal insertion of the world's hottest pepper
posted by wenat at 8:52 PM on November 11, 2011
How it works
Hallucinations, visions and overload
The spiritual experiences related to hallucinations and visions obtained from chilli are genuine, but the way they are obtained is within the same category as those obtained by flagellation or scary rides or other masochistic pursuits such as the varieties of hypoxia based experience that bring you close to death by asphyxiation! They appeal to people, who are actually in their own way rather endearing, because they very often have a bizarre sense of humour and a rather devil may care attitude.
I suspect that there is a hint of bragging involved with hot pepper aficionados, but at the same time there's a very real sense of just sheer enthusiasm and excitement, much like you'd see with fans of roller coasters. It's just the excitement that comes with finding a way to trick your lizard brain into thinking that you're in danger while you know on some conscious level that you're totally safe. posted by DoctorFedora at 1:47 AM on November 11, 2011
There is also an effect that is produced from endorphins
I recently had a tasting of Dave's Insanity with two friends. One is into spicy food, the other is into meditation. I am just an idiot. We would taste a little bit, comment on how painful it was, meditate on the pain for a bit and then repeat with more sauce. We reached a very interesting conclusion: The pain is intense, but the feeling at the forefront is fear. Fear that you have done permanent damage, that this time you went too far, that the pain will never end. Then the pain goes away, the endorphins kick in, the sweat evaporates, and you are ready to try again. Conquer the fear and you will conquer the pepper.
posted by Ayn Rand and God at 12:25 PM on November 10, 2011
So, the pain is eventually dulled via the effect of the opioid receptors and we have reduced nervous sensations. There is sedation. We become more relaxed and less anxious. We also, via these receptors, experience euphoria and oddly enough a perverse kind of bliss. Then we get, from the inhibition via the other receptors, a reduction in our reasoning power and we are ripe for spiritual experience. There is also an effect on epinephrine and norepinephrine which are released during painful experiences and can cause a pleasurable 'rush'. Finally endorphins disinhibit the dopamine pathways, causing more dopamine to be released. This causes an overwhelming sense of pleasure, again perverse though this may sound.
Chili peppers contain a number of essential vitamins and minerals, but one often overlooked ability of the chili pepper is that it makes you sweat
I don't consider myself an extreme heat eater by any means, but I have on occasion found a salsa which I could not turn away from. Aside from the big boost of vitamins and antioxidants you get, peppers are also a great digestive, and help induce hunger. You'll also notice that people in hot countries (Thailand, Mexico, Vietnam) eat lots of spice in their foods. If you eat hot foods, you sweat, and the moisture on your skin wicks off and cools you down. posted by Gilbert at 12:27 PM on November 10, 2011
....all true, but what is important about sweat is that it is, along with ear wax, nasal secretions, wee and poo, a mechanism by which the body gets rid of bacteria, toxins and other unpleasant substances, in this case lodged near the surface of our skin. People with skin complaints are often infected by bacteria and fungi, as such by sweating profusely and ensuring the fluid intake is adequate, they can help some quite nasty skin conditions by flushing away the infecting agents. So if you haven't a sauna, a chili pepper might do!
Advice from the experts
Unless you have a really severe reaction to a pepper, the biggest issue is panic. because it really seems like you might have done something you shouldn't have. Like, this might actually damage you, and maybe your throat will close up and you'll choke, and maybe it will not get better, and maybe you're going mad. The more peppers you eat, and the hotter they get, the less likely you are to have this reaction. After a while, it becomes a familiar sensation. It's always going to hurt, in a manner of speaking, but you don't panic about it, and some people get to liking the hurt. I do. I make rum steeped with habanero and take sips of it every so often. Reminds me I'm still alive. posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:22 AM on November 10, 2011
But there is also a very serious side to frequent use of chili peppers and overdosing. All overdosing kills off receptors, as such overdosing on chilis will cause the heat sensing receptors to die and will also result in fewer endorphin receptors. To put this more crudely you will suffer because you will be unable to tell whether food is hot temperature wise and as a consequence you run the risk of getting actually burnt and you will suffer like a heroin addict if you stop - no more opium!
Chili addicts are drug addicts.
References and further reading
- Meyler’s Side Effects of Drugs – Elsevier publishing
- A Modern Herbal – Mrs M Grieve
- Medical Toxicology of Natural Substances – Foods, Fungi, Medicinal Herbs, Plants and Venomous Animals pub. Wiley
- Encyclopedia of Psychoactive plants - Christian Rasch
- Black pepper and cancer 005397
- Cancer and various foods 006256
- Chili peppers, migraine and pain 005752
- Dr Duke's list of Chemicals in Plants with Antipsoriatic Activity 019352
- Dr Duke's list of Plants containing ARGININE 017958
- Dr Duke's list of Plants containing GLYCINE 017955
- Dr Duke's list of Plants containing HISTIDINE 019061
- Dr Duke's list of Plants containing LYSINE 017957
- Dr Duke's list of Plants containing NICKEL 021500
- Dr Duke's list of Plants containing PHENYLALANINE 017936
- Dr Duke's list of Plants containing PROLINE 017956
- Dr Duke's list of Plants Containing QUERCETIN 021446
- Dr Duke's list of plants for Superactivity Arteriosclerosis/Atherosclerosis 017744
- Dr Duke's list of plants having chemicals with vasodilatory activity 017836
- Dr Duke's list of plants to help with Crohn's disease 017765
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Anti-aggregate activity 017520
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antiacne Activity 018404
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antiarrhythmic activity 018344
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antiarteriosclerotic activity 018345
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antiasthmatic activity 018347
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antiasthmatic Activity 018412
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antibronchitic Activity 018357
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Anticancer (breast) activity 018453
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Anticancer (skin) activity 018466
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Anticataract activity 018378
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Anticervicaldysplasic activity 018364
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Anticfs activity 018365
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Anticold activity 018430
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Anticolitic activity 018436
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Anticrohn's activity 018435
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Anticystitic activity 018442
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antidepressant activity 018472
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antidermatitic activity 018427
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antidote (Cadmium) Activity of high potency 018328
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antidysenteric activity 018475
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antigiardial Activity 018316
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antihemorrhagic activity 018446
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antihypertensive activity 018444
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antileishmanic Activity 018273
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antilupus activity 018440
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with AntiLyme activity 018380
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antimeasles activity 019577
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with AntiMS activity 019578
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antimyocarditic activity 018437
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antineuralgia activity 019580
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antiosteoarthritic activity 018447
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antiosteoporotic activity 018449
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with AntiPMS Activity 018419
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antipneumonic Activity 018416
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antipsoriatic Activity 018422
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antirhinitic Activity 019885
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Antischizophrenic Activity 018433
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Copper chelator activity 018387
- Dr Duke's list of plants with vasodilatory activity 012388
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with Vulnerary activity 018927
- Dr Duke's list of Plants with [Natural] Nematicide activity 018292
- Dr Duke's list of the top 20 plants containing Vitamin C 017964
- Dr Dukes list of plants with high concentrations of Antiestrogenic activity 017913
- Fighting off bugs by sweating 010331
- Nicotine, coffee, cannabis and dopamine 005772
- Plants for use with skin diseases 010325
- Sweating as the first line of defence against pathogens 010333
- Tears, sweat and saliva and the fight against antigens 010332
- The Virtues of Pepper, 1861 020095
- Use of Capsaicin to Treat Pain: Mechanistic and Therapeutic Considerations 024504