Written by adam on Apr 6, 2006
Filed Under: Editorial
Why do chile peppers burn? One might say that it was what they were put on this earth to do, just as I was put on this earth to worship my fair angel. As I am writing this, I am realized that there are two separate questions that need answering. The first is Why do chile peppers burn?. But what you really want to know is WHAT CAUSES chile peppers to burn?
Behold: the capsaicin molecule.
Why does a chile pepper burn?
The answer to this question is simple: defense. Chile pepper plants produce capsaicin in their membranes and seeds as a defense mechanism. The plant wants to protect its fruit from being eaten, so it makes it intolerable to animals that would feel the pain. This is important because not all animals feel the pain of the capsaicin.
The secondary story on this answer has to do with birds. Birds do not feel the pain and the seeds stay intact throughout their digestive system. The fruit is eaten; the seeds pass through the bird's gastrointestinal tract, and are spread, continuing the life cycle of that plant. If a mammal eats the seeds, they are destroyed within the digestive tract, making them useless for reproduction of that plant.
What causes the heat in chile peppers?
Capsaicin is what causes the heat in chili peppers. The molecules of capsaicin attach directly to the pain receptors on your tongue and the inside of your mouth, that sense heat. So it's the capsaicin that mimics the sense of heat, which is why we call it "burn" or "hot" or "Fiery." The more capsaicin, the more intense the burn.
The bad thing about this bond created by the capsaicin is that it's not easily broken. Water just won't do the trick. If you think about it, water is the natural choice. You feel the "heat" and you naturally reach for something cold that will put out the "fire." You need milk, yogurt, or sour cream. I've even heard that bread is a good solid substitute.
Let's Get High
Eating chile peppers can be addicting to some people. You see, when the capsaicin comes in contact with your pain receptors, you feel pain. Your brain reacts to this pain by releasing endorphins, natural painkillers that create a feeling of well being. The more spicy food eaten, the more endorphins released. It's kind of like a drug.
I'll admit it. I'm addicted. The only adverse reactions I ever had with eating too hot of chile peppers is what happens the next morning. You see, the mouth and tongue can sustain serious amounts of cap and often become tolerant. But the soft and sensitive tissues of your lower lower lower digestive tract do not.
Resources and related: Hot Sauce Blog, The Hot Zone Online