The chile plant is any of five domesticated species of capsicum, including Capsicum annum, C. frutescens, C. pubescens, C. chinense and C. baccatum. These species are descendants of more than 20 wild species from tropical and subtropical America, originally found in Bolivia, Mesoamerica and Amazonia. Though we do not know exactly when chiles were first discovered, approximately 10,000 years ago appears to be a pretty safe bet. Seeds found south of Mexico City date early native pepper use there at around 7000 B.C.
The use of chiles caught on well, and they spread quickly along established trade routes throughout Central and South America and the West Indies. Today, chiles grow all over the world. In the United States, many varieties are cultivated commercially. Among them, the jalapeños and cayenne strains are the most widely grown.
The substances that make chiles hot are a group of natural oleoresins called capsaicinoids. These substances only account for between .1 to 1 percent of the total composition of a chile pepper. The primary compound in this group, capsaicin, was first discovered in 1876 in India by an Englishman named L.T. Thresh. The burning sensation produced by the capsaicinoids is physiologically similar to the sensation of burning caused by heat or fire. The capsaicinoids open cell membranes in a manner that allows calcium ions to flood into cells. This triggers a pain signal that is transmitted to the next cell. This same process occurs when cells are exposed to excessive heat.
In 1912, Wilbur Scoville, a chemist working for the Parke-Davis pharmaceutical company, established a method for measuring the heat level of chile peppers. In his original test, Scoville blended ground chiles with a sugar-water solution in increasingly diluted concentrations. A panel of testers then sipped the various dilutions, until they reached the point at which the liquid no longer produced a burning sensation. A number was then assigned to each chile based on the extent to which it needed to be diluted before you could taste no heat. Since then, the heat of chile peppers has been measured in multiples of 100 units, from the bell pepper at zero Scoville units to the incendiary habañero at 300,000 Scoville units. But hotter peppers have surpassed even the hellish habañero. The Mexican Red Savina variety of habañero has been tested at 575,000 Scoville units. Another variety called the Francisca Habanero is reputedly hotter than the Red Savina. Pure capsaicin tips the scales at more than 16,000,000 Scoville heat units.
Chiles For Health
While chiles are primarily employed for the zip they add to food, they are also remarkably healthy. In traditional folk medicine, chiles have been used to treat numerous disorders, from arthritis to asthma, colds to constipation, hemorrhoids to high blood pressure, lethargy to lumbago, tonsillitis to toothache. Chiles have been made into decoctions, compresses, tinctures, ointments and even vaginal boluses. As researchers delve into chiles, and their heat components the capsaicinoids, studies show that many of the traditional folk uses of chiles as medicines can be understood by modern scientific means.
For example, chiles reduce platelet aggregation, the process by which disk-shaped structures in the blood accumulate and clog vessels. If left unchecked, this leads to atherosclerosis, hardening of the arteries. Chiles are vasodilators. They open up blood vessels, thereby stimulating blood circulation and warming the body. Chiles help to reduce oxidation of LDL cholesterol, a primary risk factor in heart disease and stroke. Chiles also reduce triglycerides (stored fats in blood cells).
Eating chiles can also help you to burn calories and shed pounds. Research conducted at Oxford Polytechnic Institute shows that eating chiles increases thermogenesis, the body's caloric burn rate. If you eat chiles or chile sauce with a meal, your body will burn calories at an increased rate of about 25 percent. This translates into maybe 45 calories more burned per 700 calorie meal.
The capsaicin in chiles also has a role in the fight against cancer by preventing carcinogens from binding to DNA where they trigger processes that cause lung and other cancers. This does not mean that chiles are a cancer treatment, but it does mean that eating chiles can help to reduce the risk of certain types of cancer. As part of your dietary intake on a regular basis, chiles provide some measure of cancer protection.
When it comes to pain, chiles provide relief for some types of headaches, especially painful cluster headaches. It may be that in the instance of cluster headaches, consumption of chiles wears out the mechanism by which pain is transmitted.
Chiles also contain pain-alleviating salicylates, compounds found abundantly in the natural aspirin-like willow bark (which contains salicin) and wintergreen (which contains methylsalicylate). When you eat chiles, your body releases natural endorphins, the brain's own opiates, which also reduces pain.
Chiles also help to open clogged and congested sinuses. For a cold or allergy accompanied by clogged sinuses, there's nothing quite like a steaming bowl of soup loaded with fiery hot sauce to blast open the airways. Your nose will run like a river for a while, but then you'll be able to breathe.
Not surprisingly, the active component in chiles also stimulate gastric secretion, which means that they get your digestive juices going. So if your digestion is slow or weak, a good dash of hot sauce in your food will prove useful. Additionally, chiles help to move sluggish bowels. If your bowels are clogged, sprinkle a good amount of chile flakes (crushed red pepper), seeds and all, on your food. The chile will act like a blasting cap; helping to eliminate backed up waste. It may burn a bit, but you'll have a good bowel movement.
Of the many health benefits offered by chiles, one of the most significant is their capacity to prevent food-borne bacterial disease. In a study published in the March 1998 volume of the Quarterly Review of Biology, researchers tested a long list of spices against 30 different harmful bacteria that can occur in foods. Chiles killed more than 75 percent of the 30 kinds of germs in the study. The agent in chiles that appears to kill bacteria is capsaicin. In another study, capsaicin was found to inhibit the rare but sometimes fatal Vibrio vulnificus bacteria, which is found in raw shellfish. Eating chiles is not only a tasty and enjoyable experience, but defends your body against nasty microbes as well.
Chris Kilham is the author of Tales From The Medicine Trail, and the upcoming Psyche Delicacies: Coffee, Chocolate, Chiles, Kava and Cannabis, and Why They're Good For You, both published by Rodale. He can be reached at [email protected].
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 9/p. 28, 31