Posts Tagged ‘Chillies’

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.


 

Spice addiction prolongs your life

August 7, 2015

red chilliesEven growing up in a family which liked its food very spicy I was regarded as being extreme in my like of fiery dishes. The story is – and I have only some very vague reflections of this – that I sucked my thumb as a child for a very long time. After my parents gave up on their attempts to stop this depraved habit my grandmother took charge. She wrapped my thumb every morning in a gauze bandage steeped in powdered red chillies. This continued all through one winter she spent with us when I was about two. She was “accused” by mother of “child cruelty” but she was determined to bring the depraved child back into line. Apparently I did not cry or complain – unnatural child that I was. Only my right thumb was wrapped in the chillie-bandage but it did not get me to stop or even to shift to my left thumb. In any event this “torture” went on for about 3 months but did not cure me of sucking my thumb (and that continued, I am told, till I was almost four). Thumb-sucking came to its natural end in due course but by then red chillies had been established as my “natural comforter”. I no longer suck my thumb, even at times of great stress – but I do find a blisteringly fiery meal strangely comforting.

But perhaps my grandmother has helped prolong my life. A new study in the BMJ reports on an observational study which makes no claims about cause and effect but merely reports a correlation between the eating of spicy food and a decrease in mortality.

Jun Lv et al. Consumption of spicy foods and total and cause specific mortality: population based cohort study. BMJ, 2015 DOI:10.1136/bmj.h3942

Press ReleasePrevious research has suggested that beneficial effects of spices and their bioactive ingredient, capsaicin, include anti-obesity, antioxidant, anti-inflammation and anticancer properties. So an international team led by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences examined the association between consumption of spicy foods as part of a daily diet and the total risk and causes of death. They undertook a prospective study of 487,375 participants, aged 30-79 years, from the China Kadoorie Biobank. Participants were enrolled between 2004-2008 and followed up for morbidities and mortality. …… 

During a median follow-up of 7.2 years, there were 20,224 deaths. Compared with participants who ate spicy foods less than once a week, those who consumed spicy foods 1 or 2 days a week were at a 10% reduced risk of death (hazard ratios for death was 0.90). And those who ate spicy foods 3 to 5 and 6 or 7 days a week were at a 14% reduced risk of death (hazard ratios for death 0.86, and 0.86 respectively).*In other words, participants who ate spicy foods almost every day had a relative 14% lower risk of death compared to those who consumed spicy foods less than once a week.

The association was similar in both men and women, and was stronger in those who did not consume alcohol. Frequent consumption of spicy foods was also linked to a lower risk of death from cancer, and ischaemic heart and respiratory system diseases, and this was more evident in women than men.

Fresh and dried chilli peppers were the most commonly used spices in those who reported eating spicy foods weekly, and further analysis showed those who consumed fresh chilli tended to have a lower risk of death from cancer, ischaemic heart disease, and diabetes.

spice tinThere is no chocolate dessert which is not better for the addition of a sprinkle or two of red chillie powder. It is not just chillies of course. A little cumin in the cheese can do wonders. A touch of cinnamon in the Irish coffee is decadently good. A little asafoetida in the traditional Swedish pea-soup can bring it to life. Bangers and mash with hot mustard on the bangers and onions and red chillies in the mash is a student’s delight. Coriander added to the mint with any lamb dish is the way to go. A touch of saffron on any fish or crustacean dish can hardly go wrong. I even find that there is no over-rated, Michelin-starred, French dish which cannot be improved by the addition of a little of the right spice.


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