Chili Peppers: Spicy and Nutritious

by Berkeley Wellness

Noted for their fiery bite, chili peppers are members of the genus Capsicum andoriginated in Mexico, Central and northern South America, where they were part of the diet at least 7,500 years ago. They were first domesticated in Mexico over 6,000 years ago.

While searching for the peppercorn plants that produce the spice known as black pepper, Columbus and his explorers discovered sweet and hot peppers in the West Indies and took samples back to Europe, where the peppers’ popularity quickly grew. Currently, demand for chili peppers in the United State is considerable. In fact, aficionados and culinary daredevils test their heat tolerance thresholds at chili pepper festivals.

Chili peppers are, of course, distinguished from sweet peppers by their varying degrees of hot, burning flavor. The incendiary nature of chili peppers is due to a substance called capsaicin, which varies in amount depending on the species of chili pepper.

Capsaicin produces an unmistakable sensation of heat (and often pain) in the mouth by targeting and stimulating pain receptors in the skin and mucous membranes. It can cause discomfort, sweating, watery eyes, and exhilaration. Some scientists theorize that in response to the discomfort produced by the chilies’ “burn,” the brain releases endorphins—substances that, at high levels, can create a sensation of pleasure. (Capsaicin is also the active ingredient in a range of topical pain-killing ointments for localized nerve pain because it numbs pain receptors in the skin.)

Types of Chili Peppers

Chili peppers come in many different degrees of hotness. Check the hotness rating of the peppers you want to buy or grow.

Chili peppers: nutrition

Chili peppers are rich sources of vitamin C. A single green or red chili pepper can give you 100 percent or more of the RDA for vitamin C. Red chili peppers contain small amounts of beta carotene; green or yellow ones have even less. Peppers are a good source of B vitamins, in particular vitamin B6. They are also high in potassium, magnesium, and iron.

Contrary to popular belief, chili peppers do not normally cause stomach upset, and people who have peptic ulcers do not need to avoid them.

For a full listing of nutrients, see the National Nutrient Database:

Here’s a sampling of the SU range for common chili peppers, from mildest to hottest:

0-500 SU: Anaheim, Poblano, Ancho, Pasilla

1,000-10,000 SU: Jalapeño, Fresno, Gaujillo, Chipotle, Hungarian Wax, New Mexican

10,000-25,000 SU: Serrano, Ho Chi Minh

25,000-50,000 SU: Cayenne, Tabasco, Chile de Árbol

50,000-100,000 SU: Piquin (Pequin), Thai Bird, Thai Dragon, Indian

100,000-350,000 SU: Habanero, Bird’s Eye, Jamaican, Scotch Bonnet

The hottest chili peppers range between 350,000 and 2.2 million SUs, and are not commonly used in cuisine. Some of the more colorfully named include Carolina Reaper, Moruga Scorpion, and Naga Viper.

How to Choose the Best Chili Peppers

Fresh chili peppers should be well-shaped, firm, and glossy. Their skins should be taut and unwrinkled, and their stems fresh and green. Watch out for soft or sunken areas, slashes, or black spots. Except for jalapeƱos, which often have shallow cracks at their stem ends, chili peppers should be free of

Hottest chili peppers

The hotness of chili peppers is usually measured in Scoville units, also called SUs or SHUs for Scoville heat units. ) The Scoville scale, invented by American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in 1912, was originally subjective, based on the greatest dilution of a standardized pepper extract that could be tasted by a majority of five trained testers.

Today, high performance liquid chromatography directly measures the concentrations of “capsaicinoids”, which are then converted to SUs by a formula. Athough a particular variety of pepper will usually fall within a given range, the hotness of individual peppers within that variety will vary. within the range. Moreover, different sources report somewhat different heat ranges. Generally 100 SUs is the smallest difference reported.

As a practical matter, keep in mind that the ribs (membrane-like structures that hold the seeds) of chili peppers are much hotter than the flesh.

Another note: People often reach for water or beer to cool a chili pepper’s fire. But milk may be a better choice. Capsaicin,the pepper's fiery substance,is fat-soluble. So is casein, a protein in milk. Casein can bind to fiery capsaicin and washaway the heat.This may be one of the reasons that in India spicy-hot curries are served with cooling yogurt-based side dishescalled raitas.

How to store chili peppers

Store unwashed chili peppers, wrapped in paper towels, in the refrigerator for up to three weeks. Do not store them in a plastic bag, because trapped moisture will hasten spoilage. Check the chilies frequently. Immediately use any that have developed soft spots. If you’ve gotten more than you can use, you can hang them to dry and use them in their dried form. Store dried chili peppers in an airtight container at room temperature for several months or longer.

How to prepare fresh chili peppers

Wash the chilies just before using them. Then cut them open and remove the seeds and ribs, if desired, to temper the chilies’ pungency. Capsaicin, the chilies’ heat-producing substance, is primarily concentrated in the pepper’s interior ribs, so removed the ribs to help reduce the chili pepper’s bite. The seeds also impart considerable fire because they are in close contact with the ribs, so remove them, too. Soak the peppers in cold salted water for an hour if you want to further reduce their hotness.

When cutting hot peppers, it is best to wear thin rubber gloves. If gloves aren’t available, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water (a mild bleach solution is even better) after working with the peppers. And never touch your hands to your face—especially to your eyes—when they have come into contact with capsaicin.

Don’t forget to wash the utensils and cutting board after use, as you may taint other foods with undesired heat.

The same caveats apply for dried hot peppers, with one additional caution: When grinding them (by hand or in a food processor or blender), be careful not to inhale the fumes or let them waft into your eyes.

To add the mildest chili flavor to food, cut a few slits in a whole chili pepper, impale it on a toothpick or skewer, then add it to food that is already cooking. When the dish is done, remove and discard the toothpick and pepper.

With chili peppers, you will find that even those of the same type vary in hotness. Consequently, you may need to use a different amount each time you prepare a favorite recipe. Sample a bit of the pepper before deciding how much to use in a particular dish. It’s a good idea to add chilies a small amount at a time, until the food reaches the degree of hotness you desire.

Seasonings Made with Chili Peppers

These chili powders and condiments made from hot peppers enliven dishes without added calories or fat.

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