Capsaicin and The Science Inside Hot Peppers

My painting that teaches a bit about the bite that bites back in chili peppers is complete!

*This post was originally posted on my Patreon. If you enjoy science communication through art please consider supporting my project here.

I used the Padrón pepper as my model and muse for this piece because they are my favorite peppers and I grow them in my garden.

The Padrón pepper has recently gained popularity in the United States but has long been a Spanish favorite. These heirloom peppers are often picked in their very early stages when they are small, about an inch and half to inches in length and still green. They are then cooked quickly in hot olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt and served as a tapas style dish that is absolutely fantastic with red wine such as that on QKA Wine. The fun thing about eating Padrón peppers this way, is that you get play a culinary game of Russian Roulette while enjoying your wine. Most of the peppers will be flavorful but taste mild, but approximately one in every 5 will pack a serious capsaicin punch. It will be very hot- or at least much hotter than the rest! This can turn an ordinary appetizer into an exiting surprise! You never know which pepper will give that endorphin rush!

And endorphins seem to be the key in explaining why humans are so drawn to eating something that actually causes pain. Capsaicin is the chemical in a hot pepper that creates the heat we are so familiar with. Capsaicin bonds with the vanilliod receptor in your mouth causing the often painful sensation of heat. The sensation varies in intensity based on how much capsaicin is present. This is the same feeling you would get if you put something that was actually hot, like fire, in your mouth. The difference being, that capsaicin just causes the feeling and does not actually burn or damage the flesh of your mouth. When the pain of heat is detected, either from actual heat or from capsaicin, endorphins (the feel-good, help you deal with pain, opioid neuropeptides) are released to help you cope. It is speculated that the knowledge that the average batch of hot peppers won’t actually hurt you, combined with the endorphin rush, is what has made hot peppers a favorite addition to foods across the globe.

As I mentioned earlier Padrón peppers are often picked early to serve as a tapas dish but if you let these little peppers stay on the plant and mature, they turn from green to red and often you can catch them in a beautiful red and green stage like the one in the painting that has been sliced in half. Whether you pick them in the red-green stage or let them go completely red, one thing you can count on is them being MUCH hotter than in their infancy. They jump from mild to medium on the Scolville scale to a much higher stakes game of medium to very hot.

That brings us to the Scoville scale that is represented in my painting. It was invented by a pharmacist named Wilber Scoville. I did some research and I’m pretty sure Wilber had the hottest mustache in town. The reason being is that his scale was, and still is, based on a taste test. It’s not exactly scientific and reminds me a lot of homeopathy because the way Wilber determined the heat of a pepper was by diluting the pepper until the heat could no longer be detected by taste. This process is not ideal because there are many variables that can give different results. Tasters fatigue is a thing as well as variables in different people’s tolerance to the heat and even, as we have learned with the Padrón pepper, peppers can vary in heat even when picked from the same plant. Other more accurate ways of finding the levels of capsaicin are now done in chemistry labs but the Scolville Scale is a good approximation and has remained a favorite online and in pepper and hot sauce connoisseur communities and so I included it.

Finally, a note on where that heat is coming from. People often confuse the seeds as being the hot part of a pepper but it’s actually where the seeds are attached that packs the punch. If you slice open a pepper, as I have done in my depiction, you will see lighter colored stripes that hold the seed and travel down to the base of the pepper. This is called the placenta and is the gland that produces the capsaicin. Those are the hot parts. Here is a tip, if you eat a pepper that is too hot to handle, drink milk. Milk contains casein a chemical that binds with the capsaicin and helps wash it away. Water will only make it worse. If you burn your hands cutting peppers, you can also soak them in milk for a similar cure.

I hope this painting has taught you a bit more about the peppers we love! Now if you will excuse me, I have some fresh salsa I have to make!

Special thanks to chemist, Dr Ray Burks who kept an eye on me while I worked on this project and directed me to reliable information on the chemistry of peppers and specifically, capsaicin.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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