At our annual company summit in the summer of 2012, our late co-founder Jonathan Rojewski made a presentation on the science of spice. I was re-working this presentation a few weeks ago and found it both insightful and a lot of fun.
Chili peppers have been around a long time. Native to the Americas, there is archeological evidence that peppers have been cultivated for over 6,000 years. While the first evidence of their existence is in Southwestern Ecuador, they derive the name peppers after European explorers thought them similar in taste to black pepper. The word chili comes from Mexico and the Nahuatl word xilli, which refers to a large pepper cultivated in Oaxaca and Puebla Mexico more than 5,000 years ago.
We often use the word hot or spicy to describe what we really mean as “piquent”. Technically speaking, hot means a high temperature, spicy means that it contains spice, and piquancy is the sensation you get when consuming Capsaicin, the chemical that creates the burning feeling. Jonathan liked to make the analogy to warm pumpkin pie - it can be hot and apicy with the Nutmeg, Clove, and Cinnamon, but probably not piquent. Nevertheless, we think we would sound too nerdy if we always used piquent, so in this and other blog posts I will continue to use spicy when I technically mean piquent.
Capsaicin (methyl vanillyl nonenamide), is a lipophilic chemical that can produce a strong burning sensation in the mouth of the unaccustomed eater. It creates this burning sensation from activating ion channels on sensory nerve fibers, which is the same ion channel activated when you are physically burned or cut (ouch). The capsaicin is mostly found in the inner tissue of peppers (contrary to popular belief not in the seeds). This has originally been developed as a defense mechanism for the plants. While most animals find this unpleasant, most birds are immune to the burning sensation of capsaicin. The bright colors of most peppers attract birds that will pick the peppers and disperse the seeds to help spread the pepper population
How to protect yourself
As Capsaicin is lipophilic, it dissolves in fat, not water. That is why drinking water will not cool down the burning sensation from a hot pepper. Better to drink milk, yogurt, or anything else with a lot of fat. They also mix well with casein proteins found in dairy that make whole fat milk especially effective to cool down the burning sensation.
Peppers are rated on the Scoville Scale to determine how spicy they are. To do this, five different taste testers taste the diluted Capsaicin oil from dried peppers. The number of Scoville Heat Units (SHU) determine how many times hotter than a bell pepper the rated pepper is (Bell Peppers are the only pepper void of Capsaicin).
Why do we like spice?
It seems kind of strange that something that causes pain can be so addictive, but that is exactly what piquancy does. From endurance sports, deep tissue massage, and eating peppers, humans find pleasure in placing themselves in painful situations. All of these experiences produce endorphins, and can make piquant foods mildly addictive. Moreover, the more spice you eat the more you desire to get that same endorphin rush.
How Spice is growing
All of this, in addition to the growing Asian and Latin influence in the American diet, are making peppers a bigger and bigger part of what we consume. From potato chips, beer, chocolate, and energy bars, Piquant foods are coming into every aisle of the grocery store. And now with spicy gins, vodkas, whiskeys, and of course the original Jalapeño Infused Tequila, they are also at your local liquor store.
Para la buena vida,