By Laura Ng
Chili (also chilli, chile) peppers come in various species. Capsicum annuum is one of the species that includes bell peppers, cayenne, jalapeno and paprika.
All chili peppers (except bell pepper) create burning sensation at differing degree when eaten. What causes the "hotness"?
Many people thought that pepper seeds are the "hot" producer. Well, they're only partially correct. It's the presence of capsaicin found in the white membrane where the seeds are attached.
When I was a young child, I suffered from poor digestion, which affects my appetite. I simply didn't like to eat and at times I had to eat a little just to pacify my mother as she stood there facing me with a cane.
She's terribly worried as she brought me from one doctor to another.
You see, doctors couldn't find anything wrong with me except to tell my mother to feed me my favorite food. One doctor even advised, "She's trying to attract attention... starve her a bit and when she feels hungry, she'll eat." (How mean!)
Finally, a brilliant doctor (oops! I forgot her name) asked my mother to try feeding me chili peppers. She explained the capsaicin in chili peppers could improve my digestion by increasing the digestive fluids in the stomach, thereby stimulating my appetite. It worked!
In those days where Internet was still uncommon, people knew very little about cayenne pepper's medical cure. My mom was skeptical of the doctor's advice but as expected from any loving mother, she gave it a shot and gradually added cayenne pepper to my dishes. It worked. My appetite improved and since then, I became a fan of spicy foods.
Not only that, capsaicin prevents stomach ulcers by killing harmful bacteria that cause infection in the stomach while stimulating more digestive fluids to act as protective buffer against formation of stomach ulcers.
It may also help to fight diarrhea triggered by bacterial infection.
Having said that, I don't advocate upping your chili intake excessively as the opposite effect could be worse.
I read about UK scientists suspecting high intake of really hot chili like habanero in India and Mexico were linked to stomach cancers. But I believe these are really extreme cases.
Learning to eat moderate amounts of chili peppers actually benefits your health a lot.
Scientists also found encouraging preliminary results in using capsaicin against prostate cancerous cells. The component actually curbs the growth of cancerous cells when used in large quantities. Although this was tested only on mice and not on humans yet, at the very least it provides another good reason to eat chili.
When applying topical capsaicin on skin, it helps to temporarily relieve pain arising from arthritis, psoriasis, diabetic neuropathy, cluster headaches and mouth sores due to chemotherapy or radiation.
If you're frustrated with blocked nose, try eating chili-based dishes like hot curry, hot chili soup or hot Thai tom yam soup. The "hotness" stimulates secretions from your mucous membranes to discharge the mucus so that your blocked nose clears almost immediately, offering you temporary fast relief.
I found this finding interesting - do you know turkeys are prone to develop hardening of arteries (atherosclerosis), just like humans, because of their high cholesterol diet?
An experiment involving feeding capsaicin to turkeys showed that turkeys on high cholesterol diet had their cholesterol levels lowered.
Whether you believe the above or not, studies have shown capsaicin does lower cholesterol levels in humans as well. More specifically, it keeps LDL / HDL ratio in check by lowering LDL and raising HDL.
Furthermore, it actually reduces triglyceride and fibrinogen levels. Fibrinogen is a clotting factor, which raises one's susceptibility to form clots (arise from clumping of platelets) if it increases too much. Too many blood clots along the lining of the arteries pose a significant risk for developing heart attacks.
For that reason, in some medical literature, capsaicin is also referred to as antioxidants.
Good news to weight loss fanatics!
Capsaicin actually burns calories to produce the extra heat you feel when eating hot chili peppers. Ever heard of diet-induced thermogenesis?
Now, thermogenesis is the creation of heat through burning of energy, or calories, which is a body metabolic process. Generally, 3 main mechanisms induce this process - exercise, surrounding environmental temperatures and diet.
Diet-induced thermogenesis is activated through the food we eat. Our body uses up energy to digest the food. Quantity and different types of foods eaten affect the level of thermogenic effect (metabolic rate).
Chili pepper is one of the commonly recommended thermogenic foods due to its capsaicin. The burning effect of capsaicin in chili peppers elevates the thermogenic power to help you burn more calories.
Not only that, the hot burning sensation can prevent you from overeating as you feel full faster without eating large portion.
I know of some dieters who pop supplements containing capsaicin extracts as part of their slimming program. But I find it's more natural to absorb capsaicin through food such as chili peppers. You never know what side effects those supplements may bring you.
A research by Australia's University of Tasmania has also shown that capsaicin can tame hyperinsulinemia associated with Type 2 diabetes mellitus.
The Australian research put 36 overweight (but not obese) adults through two 4-week cycles on two different diets - bland meals and meals spiced with cayenne chili (also red chili pepper). All meals contain bread and sugar drinks. Their blood samples were taken before and after meals.
It was found that their average insulin levels spiked higher after the bland meals than after the chili-seasoned meals.
In another study by Canada's Toronto University on injection of capsaicin in diabetic mice, their production of insulin actually returned to normal and the effect lasted months after that.
The frightening fact that over 80 percent of diabetics will die of cardiovascular disease makes it important to control your insulin level. Adding chili pepper to your meals is a simple, cheap yet natural way to do it.
Interestingly, due to its ability to cause burning and painful sensation, capsaicin extract is used to produce a self-defense device called pepper spray. Such spray could contain a Scoville unit (SHU) of 5,000,000, which is about 5 times hotter than the world's hottest chili - naga jolokia (1,000,000 SHU).
This spray becomes a must-buy for some women in some countries as it comes in handy if she runs into a robber or lecher. Imagine blasting this powerful mist on her aggressor, especially his eyes, will paralyze him long enough for her to kick his butt before she runs.
Wow, that's a great deal of goodness for taking chili peppers. But do be careful of the "hotness" when you handle or gobble them.
Chili peppers come in different sizes, shapes and degrees of heat or spiciness. The more mature the pepper, the hotter you'll get.
So, how do scientists measure the "hotness" to differentiate the heat level in different chili species?
The commonly measurement method is by Scoville Scale.
The Scoville Scale converts the amount of capsaicin in parts per million into Scoville heat units (SHU). That means, the greater the number of Scoville Scale, the hotter the pepper.
A sweet bell pepper measuring 0 SHU means no heat is detected at all because it doesn't contain capsaicin, while a jalapeno pepper heat level ranges from 2,500 to 8,000 SHU. The hottest known chili peppers, habanero or scotch bonnet, record at around 300,000 SHU.
Thus, you should exercise extra caution when handling these super hot chili peppers to prevent them from coming into contact with your skin or eyes. Especially do not rub your eyes with your hands after touching the chilies.
Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling the chilies.
Should you eat a really hot chili, which causes an unbearable burning sensation in your mouth and lips (making you feel as if your lips have swollen like pairs of sausages), drink milk or eat yogurt, rice or bread instead of water to ease the scorching pain.
I often use these few ways to handle hot chilies, which are effective.
Hold the chili by its stem, then slice open it vertically with a small knife and scrape away the veins and seeds with the knife without touching the seeds.
Alternatively, after cutting the chili vertically in half and holding down the stem in one hand, you can use a melon baller with the other hand to roll it from the tip back to the stem end, thereby removing the veins and seeds in one motion. That's another smart way to keep your fingers off the "heat".
Place the chili in water for 15 minutes before cutting it. Note that this will only reduce but will not fully remove the "hotness" of the chili.
If you do not need to remove the seeds, just hold the chili by the stem and cut it into rings. Asians like to eat raw chilies as a dip in this manner, with the chilies soaked in lime juice or soy sauce.
Peppers are not seasonal fruits, meaning you can find them in supermarkets any day during the year.
Choose well-shaped, firm and glossy peppers, which feel heavy for their sizes. Watch out for unhealthy peppers with soft or wrinkled areas, cracks, slashes or black spots.
Except for jalapeno which you'll see some tiny cracks at the end of its stem, fresh chili pepper should not bear any cracks at all. Keep that in mind.
I suggest that you wrap the peppers in paper bags or paper towels, and store them in the fridge to help retain their freshness, up to 5 days for bell peppers and 3 weeks for chili peppers.
Last but not least, remember to wash them before cooking so as to remove the wax on their surfaces.
Frontier All-Natural Cayenne Pepper, Ground by Frontier
The Great Chile Book by Mark Miller
The Complete Chile Pepper Book: A Gardener's Guide to Choosing, Growing, Preserving, and Cooking by Dave DeWitt & Paul W. Bosland