Posts Tagged ‘Capsaicin’

Chillies are to food as the zero is to mathematics

March 10, 2017

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.

(Getty Images)

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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My medicinal chillies

August 26, 2011

Spanish priests in the New World were once a little wary of chillies – considering them an aphrodisiac and something which could inflame passions and therefore possibly a creation of the devil. They preached against indulgence in something “as hot as hell’s brimstone”. The opposition by the priests may have helped chillies gain popularity.

Women drying chillies image: news.bbc.co.uk

Chillies are known to be helpful against hypertension and against pain. They are antimicrobial and aid salivation.  It is thought that capsaicin is an effective defense against a fungus that attacks chili seeds. In fact, experiments have shown that the same species of wild chili plant produces a lot of capsaicin in an environment where the fungus is likely to grow, and very little in drier areas where the fungus is not a danger. Perhaps a liking for chillies is one of the key features distinguishing humans  from other mammals. Family legend has it that my own liking of chillies results from my grandmother coating my thumb in chillie powder as an infant to try and stop me from sucking it!!

But the list of medicinal benefits that chillies can provide is growing.

Now comes evidence in a new paper that chillies are effective against sinus inflammations as well.

Jonathan A. Bernstein, Benjamin P. Davis, Jillian K. Picard, Jennifer P. Cooper, Shu Zheng, Linda S. Levin. A randomized, double-blind, parallel trial comparing capsaicin nasal spray with placebo in subjects with a significant component of nonallergic rhinitisAnnals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, 2011; 107 (2): 171 DOI:10.1016/j.anai.2011.05.016

The authors conclude: This is the first controlled trial demonstrating intranasal capsaicin, when used continuously over 2 weeks, rapidly and safely improves symptoms in rhinitis subjects with a significant NAR component.

Science Daily

Hot chili peppers are known to make people “tear up,” but a new study led by University of Cincinnati allergy researcher Jonathan Bernstein, MD, found that a nasal spray containing an ingredient derived from hot chili peppers (Capsicum annum) may help people “clear up” certain types of sinus inflammation. 

The study, which appears in the August 2011 edition of Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, compares the use of the Capsicum annum nasal spray to a placebo nasal spray in 44 subjects with a significant component of nonallergic rhinitis (i.e., nasal congestion, sinus pain, sinus pressure) for a period of two weeks.

Capsicum annum contains capsaicin, which is the main component of chili peppers and produces a hot sensation. Capsaicin is also the active ingredient in several topical medications used for temporary pain relief. …. This is the first controlled trial where capsaicin was able to be used on a continuous basis to control symptoms. It is considered a significant advance, “because we don’t really have good therapies for non-allergic rhinitis,” says Bernstein, adding that in previous trials the ingredient was too hot to administer without anaesthesia.

Chilies: The real difference between humans and animals

September 22, 2010

As Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist, puts it, “Philosophers have often looked for the defining feature of humans — language, rationality, culture and so on. I’d stick with this: Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce.”

Chilies

From the New York Times:

Indian Jolokia pepper

Jolokia chili

Habaneros are very hot, although there’s a lot of variation. On the standard Scoville heat scale (Bell peppers 0, the hottest Indian jolokia peppers 1,000,000) orange habaneros run 100,000 to 350,000. By comparison, jalapenos can go anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000. Two percent capsaicin bear spray is advertised at 3.3 million units, and pure capsaicin — the chemical that causes the pain — hits 16 million.

Some experts argue that we like chilies because they are good for us. They can help lower blood pressure, may have some antimicrobial effects, and they increase salivation, which is good if you eat a boring diet based on one bland staple crop like corn or rice. The pain of chilies can even kill other pain, a concept supported by recent research.

I can identify with this.  Bring on the vengaya chutney.

My Vengaya chutney:

Vengaya chutney

2 large onions, a fistful of dried red (Indian) chilies, a chunk of ginger, 4 cloves of garlic, 2 Habanero chilies.

Blend together into a paste. Add chilies to suit for colour and heat.

Garnish with a teaspoon each of mustard seeds and urad dal, 2 bay leaves heated for 90 seconds in hot oil.

Serve as relish on anything and with everything.

  • Spread on bread and serve grilled or roasted
  • spread on bread when making sandwiches
  • add a teaspoon to any soup (or any gravy for that matter)
  • spread on any meat before grilling (or after grilling if you prefer the raw heat)
  • add a tablespoon while tossing pasta
  • eat traditionally as an accompaniment to idlis and dosais.

The NYT continues:

Others, notably Dr. Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania, argue that the beneficial effects are too small to explain the great human love of chili-spiced food. “I don’t think they have anything to do with why people eat and like it,” he said in an interview. Dr. Rozin, who studies other human emotions and likes and dislikes (“I am the father of disgust inpsychology,” he says) thinks that we’re in it for the pain. “This is a theory,” he emphasizes. “I don’t know that this is true.”

But he has evidence for what he calls benign masochism. For example, he tested chili eaters by gradually increasing the pain, or, as the pros call it, the pungency, of the food, right up to the point at which the subjects said they just could not go further. When asked after the test what level of heat they liked the best, they chose the highest level they could stand, “just below the level of unbearable pain.” As Delbert McClinton sings (about a different line of research), “It felt so good to hurt so bad.”

The story of how chilies got their heat is pretty straightforward. A recent study suggested that capsaicin is an effective defense against a fungusthat attacks chili seeds. In fact, experiments have shown that the same species of wild chili plant produces a lot of capsaicin in an environment where the fungus is likely to grow, and very little in drier areas where the fungus is not a danger.

The fact that capsaicin causes pain to mammals seems to be accidental. There’s no evolutionary percentage in preventing animals from eating the peppers, which fall off the plant when ripe. Birds, which also eat fruits, don’t have the same biochemical pain pathway, so they don’t suffer at all from capsaicin. But in mammals it stimulates the very same pain receptors that respond to actual heat. Chili pungency is not technically a taste; it is the sensation of burning, mediated by the same mechanism that would let you know that someone had set your tongue on fire.

No one knows for sure why humans would find pleasure in pain, but Dr. Rozin suggests that there’s a thrill, similar to the fun of riding a roller coaster. “Humans and only humans get to enjoy events that are innately negative, that produce emotions or feelings that we are programmed to avoid when we come to realize that they are actually not threats,” he said. “Mind over body. My body thinks I’m in trouble, but I know I’m not.” And it says, hand me another jalapeño.

Other mammals have not joined the party. “There is not a single animal that likes hot pepper,” Dr. Rozin said. Or asPaul Bloom, a Yale psychologist, puts it, “Philosophers have often looked for the defining feature of humans — language, rationality, culture and so on. I’d stick with this: Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce.”

As James Gorman, the author of the NYT article puts it:

A taste for chilies has no deep meaning, no evolutionary value. It’s just a taste for chilies. I might add, though, that since it takes such a complicated brain and weird self-awareness to enjoy something that is inherently not enjoyable, only the animal with the biggest brain and the most intricate mind can do it. Take heart, chili heads. It’s not dumb to eat the fire, it’s a sign of high intelligence.


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