Tag Archives: why

Food and science: Why are peppers hot?

Chili peppers, such as jalapeños and serranos and habañeros, are hot because they contain a chemical called capsaicin, which is an irritant to humans.

Why capsaicin?

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.

Carolina reaper peppers, one of the hottest according to the Scoville Scale. Just look at the wrinkles! (Wikipedia)

Food and science: when is food safe?

The milk we get at the store is pasteurized, and we all know that chicken must reach 165 F and pork must reach 145 F. What is the source of these numbers, and what is their purpose?

Raw foods like meat and dairy contain a certain number of pathogens that can make us sick. These pathogens die when heated above about 125 F. So why are cooking temperatures much higher than 125 F? The recommended cooking temperatures are the temperatures your food must reach in order for a large enough portion of the bacteria to die nearly instantaneously. At 140 F, the salmonella in ground beef is reduced by a factor of ten every 5.48 minutes. Salmonella must be reduced by a factor of ten million to one, so you would have to hold this temperature for a while. At 150 F, the salmonella is reduced by a factor of ten every 0.55 minutes, so this is quite a bit faster. At 160 F, the bacteria reduces fast enough that by the time you’ve measured it, enough time has passed. The process of “sous vide” cooking uses lower temperatures applied steadily for long times to cook food. I will discuss this excellent cooking method in a future post.

The process of making food safe by reducing the bacteria is called pasteurization, which you may be more familiar with from the dairy aisle than meat, but the concept is the same. Also in dairy, the time for pasteurization depends upon the temperature. Pasteurized milk is heated to 162 F for at least 15 seconds while ultra-pasteurized milk is heated to 280 F for 1-2 seconds. Eggs are not usually pasteurized, but they can be when heated to 130 F for about an hour.

Douglas Baldwin’s section on food safety in his online guide to sous vide is the source of much of the information I present here. It is full of scientific citations, but is very readable, and I highly recommend it as further reading. Happy Valentine’s Day!