Chillies are to food as the zero is to mathematics

Every so often  a new article pops up about the inherent goodness of the capsaicin in chillies. For me this is just stating the obvious, like stating the earth is round and not flat or that man-made carbon dioxide is irrelevant for global warming. To like chillies is to like sunlight and brightness.

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There are few dishes or sauces which cannot be improved by the judicious addition of fresh green chillies, fresh red chillies, dried red chillies  or even – for the hard-pressed urbanite – chillie powder. From a pinch of chopped green chillies in salads or chillie flakes on pizzas (which ought to be mandatory) or a few drops of “hot oil” on all pasta dishes or chillie infused olive oil for dressings and sauces, virtually every cuisine can be improved. No barbecue ought to be allowed without a hot sauce (though the overuse of vinegar with red chillies should be outlawed). Brazilian churascarias usually do have sharp, fresh ginger and often have wasabi but could well do with having more chillies available. Traditional European cuisine (especially Eastern Europe) was long ignorant of the virtues of chillies. It was like the mathematics Europe had without a symbol for zero. They are learning now. English “cuisine” has changed immeasurably – for the better – only since the proliferation of curry houses. French cuisine is only just beginning to learn how to use chillies. It seems ridiculous to have a Michelin starred chef who does not know how to use chillies.

BBC: Why hot chillies might be good for us

As anyone who has ever eaten a really hot chilli will testify, they can cause a lot of pain.

Chillies come in many shapes, colours, sizes and strengths, but one thing they have in common is the burning sensation they cause in your mouth, eyes and any other part of your body into which their juices come into contact.

Although most people think that the hottest part of a chilli is its seeds, in fact it is the white spongy layer you find inside, called the placenta. Bite into this and you will really feel the burn. That burning sensation is mainly caused by a chemical called capsaicin, which is found in tiny glands in the chilli’s placenta. When you eat a chilli, the capsaicin is released into your saliva and then binds on to TRPV1 receptors in your mouth and tongue. The receptors are actually there to detect the sensation of scalding heat. Capsaicin makes your mouth feel as if it is on fire because the capsaicin molecule happens to fit the receptors perfectly. When this happens it triggers these receptors, which send a signal to your brain, fooling it into thinking that your mouth is literally burning.

The reason why wild chilli plants first started to produce capsaicin was to try and protect themselves from being eaten by mammals like you. From an evolutionary perspective the plant would much rather have its seeds dispersed far and wide by birds. Oddly enough birds, unlike mammals, don’t have TRPV1 receptors, so they do not experience any burn.

So producing capsaicin turned out to be the ideal way to deter mammals from eating the plant while encouraging birds to do so. But then along came an ape with a giant frontal cortex who somehow learnt to love the burn.

Humans are not only not deterred by capsaicin, most of us positively love it. So what’s going on? The ferocity of a chilli pepper is measured in something called Scoville heat units (SHU). A relatively mild chilli, like the Dutch Long chilli, is only 500, but by the time you move on to the Naga chilli, which is one of the hottest in the world, you are biting into something with a Scoville score of more than 1.3m units. The current world record holder for hotness, however, is the Carolina Reaper, first bred in Rock Hill, South Carolina. According to tests carried out by the University of Winthrop in South Carolina it scores an impressive 1.57m SHUs

So, what happens when you bite into a really hot chill? …….. Within minutes of eating my first chilli, my eyes began to water and my pulse shot up. My body had responded to an initial burst of severe pain by releasing adrenaline. This not only made my heart beat faster, but it also made my pupils dilate. Every round the chillies got hotter and both of us soon dropped out. Had we been able to tolerate biting into some really hot chillies, it’s possible we would have experienced a “chilli endorphin high”. Endorphins are natural opiates, painkillers which are sometimes released in response to the chilli’s sting. Like opiates they are said to induce a pervasive sense of happiness. It is a form of thrill-seeking – feeding our brains’ desire for stimulation. ……

…… In a recent study done by researchers from the University of Vermont they looked at data from more than 16,000 Americans who had filled in food questionnaires over an average of 18.9 years. During that time nearly 5,000 of them had died. What they found was that was that those who ate a lot of red hot chillies were 13% less likely to die during that period than those who did not. This supports the finding of another recent study, carried out in China, that came to similar conclusions.

So why might eating chillies be good for you?

The researchers speculate that it could be that capsaicin is helping increase blood flow, or even altering the mix of your gut bacteria in a helpful direction.


 

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