Peppers reached Europe in the 16th century
The earliest evidence of it being part of a human diet dates back 6,000 years to Mexico or northern Central America. Chillies reached Europe in the 16th century. Currently, there are five domesticated species of pepper. The species consumed are Capsicum anum, Sea chinense, Sea frutescens, Sea baccatum and Sea pubescens. The most commonly cultivated species is C. annuum, which includes New Mexican jalapenos and bell peppers.
Instead habaneros and Scotch bonnets are related to C. chinense, while Tabasco peppers are related to C. frutescens. South American Aziz is Sea baccatum, while Peruvian Rocoto and Mexican Manzano are Sea pubescens. Nowadays, more than 3 million tonnes of chillies are produced annually for the global market which is a turnover of over four billion dollars.
Why do chilies cause burning?
The pungency is the burning sensation caused by the capsaicin in the food. When we eat spicy food, capsaicin stimulates TRPV1 receptors in our mouths and triggers a response. The purpose of TRPV1 receptors is to detect thermoreception. This means that they are supposed to prevent us from consuming irritating food. When TRPV1 receptors are activated through capsaicin, the sensation we feel is associated with the feeling of something warm, around the boiling point of water. However, this pain is nothing more than a deceptive side effect of our confused nerve receptors. There’s nothing really “hot” about spicy food.
Not all chilies are the same
The spiciness varies according to the type of chili you are eating. Pharmacist Wilbur Scoville created a scale to measure the pungency of peppers in 1912. The scale, measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU), is based on capsaicinoid sensitivity experienced by people who eat chili. Carolina peppers (with SHU zero) are at the bottom of the standard Scoville scale. Jalapeno peppers can be anywhere from 2,500 to 10,000. By comparison, Tabasco peppers range between 25,000 and 50,000 units, and Habaneros peppers range between 100,000 and 350,000.
The spiciness of the Carolina Reaper, the world’s hottest chili, can be up to 2.2 million units. The sharpness of beer spray (two percent capsaicin) can be as high as 3.3 million units and that of Scoville pure capsaicin to 1.6 million units.
Roberto Silvestro, PhD Research Fellow, Biology, Université du Québec e Chicotimi (UQAC)