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  • Writer's pictureGreg Foster

What Makes A Chili Pepper Feel Hot?

When it comes to spicy food, few ingredients pack as much heat as the humble chili pepper. From jalapeños to habaneros, these fiery fruits are beloved by spice-lovers everywhere. But what is it that makes a chili pepper hot? Let's take a closer look.

The heat of a chili pepper is primarily determined by the presence of a compound called capsaicin. Capsaicin is found in the placental tissue of the pepper, which is the white, spongy layer that surrounds the seeds. The more capsaicin in the pepper, the hotter it will be.

When you eat a chili pepper, the capsaicin binds to receptors on the tongue and mouth that are responsible for sensing heat and pain. This triggers a cascade of physiological responses that include increased heart rate, sweating, and the release of endorphins, which can create a sense of pleasure or euphoria.

Interestingly, capsaicin doesn't actually cause physical damage to the mouth or tongue. Instead, it tricks the body into thinking it's in pain, which can be an unpleasant sensation for some people.

The heat level of a chili pepper is usually measured in Scoville units, a scale developed by American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in 1912. The Scoville scale ranges from 0 (no heat) to over 2 million (extremely hot), and is determined by testing the pepper's heat level using a process called high-performance liquid chromatography.

While capsaicin is the primary compound responsible for a pepper's heat, other factors can also play a role. For example, the seeds and ribs of the pepper contain some capsaicin, but not as much as the placental tissue. However, they can contribute to the overall heat level of the pepper because they come into contact with the mouth more than other parts of the pepper.

Additionally, the way a chili pepper is prepared can also affect its heat level. Cooking a pepper can break down some of the capsaicin, making it less hot. Conversely, chopping or grinding a pepper can release more capsaicin, making it hotter.

In conclusion, the heat of a chili pepper is primarily determined by the presence of capsaicin in the placental tissue of the pepper. Other factors, such as the seeds and ribs, as well as the way the pepper is prepared, can also affect its heat level. Whether you love the burn of a jalapeño or prefer something milder, understanding what makes a chili pepper hot can help you choose the perfect pepper for your next spicy meal.

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