Chili peppers, such as jalapeños and serranos and habañeros, are hot because they contain a chemical called capsaicin, which is an irritant to humans.
If it is advantageous to plants to spread their seeds, why do the fruits (peppers) contain a chemical that repels animals? It turns out that birds are not sensitive to the effects of capsaicin. Thus, capsaicin repels animals whose chewing action may destroy the seed while not repelling birds. Additionally, capsaicin may function as a antifungal.
What does capsaicin do, chemically?
Capsaicin binds to receptors for heat and pain called vanilloid receptors. Capsaicin causes the receptor’s neuron to fire, which normally occurs at higher temperatures; thus, the brain interprets this neuron signal as sensing heat.
Capsaicin is just one kind of vanilloid compound; vanilla is another member of the vanilloid family, with a similar structure, but it does not act on vanilloid receptors. Now I wonder if peppers taste at all like vanilla to birds. A mystery for the ages.
Capsaicin in peppers
As you may have noticed, some peppers are hotter than others. This is because some contain more capsaicin and related chemicals than others. The relative hotness of peppers is measured by the Scoville scale. According to this scale, habañeros are a few times hotter than ají peppers which are a few times hotter than chipotle peppers. Bell peppers actually don’t contain capsaicin due to a recessive trait.
Contrary to what I learned growing up, the seeds don’t contain capsaicin. However, the pith that surrounds the seeds has the highest concentration. This may be why the hottest peppers look like wrinkly sphinx cats; they are just packed with pith (such as the Carolina Reaper pepper, bottom). You can reduce the hotness of a pepper for cooking by preferentially removing the white spines, which is the pith.
Habañero peppers have a Scoville rating of roughly 500,000. Pure capsaicin has a rating of 16 million. Some chemical called resiniferatoxin found in Moroccan cacti has a rating of 16 billion (1,000 times higher!). 40 grams of the stuff can kill a person.
So, there’s your overview of peppers for this Friday. Don’t consider this a challenge to go find that Moroccan cactus, but when your lips tingle after eating salsa, perhaps think of capsaicin.