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15 Spicy Facts About Chili Peppers

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Peppers, or members of the genus capsicum, come in all shapes, sizes, colors—and spiciness. Learn more about the varied and interesting fruit native to Central and South America. 

1. THERE ARE THOUSANDS OF TYPES OF PEPPERS. 

Chili pepper is a very broad term. The plant is capable of mutating very quickly, and as a result, there are a ton of varieties—there are over 140 different kinds growing in Mexico alone. The environment also impacts what the pepper will look and taste like: soil, temperature, and weather all need to be taken into account. 

2. BUT THE ONES YOU KNOW ARE ALL FROM THE SAME SPECIES. 

Despite the huge range of species, only five are domesticated: C. annuum, C. baccatum, C. chinense, C. frutescens, and C. pubescens. Capsicum annuum is the most common of the group; it includes a plethora of cultivars both mild and hot, including bell peppers and jalapeños. The majority of peppers that you can think of all come from this one species. 

3. THEY'VE BEEN DOMESTICATED FOR A LONG TIME. 

Peppers are believed to be one of the first plants to have been domesticated, and chili pepper seeds from over 6000 years ago have been found in Peru and Mexico. Residue of the peppers has also been found on various ancient cooking tools. 

4. SOME PARTS OF THE PEPPER ARE HOTTER THAN OTHERS. 

If you’ve ever eaten a chili pepper, you might have noticed that the second bite is hotter than the first. Some people believe it’s because the seeds are the spiciest part, but it’s actually the flesh near them that sets your tongue on fire. The part of the pepper closest to the stem is usually the hotter part because it has the highest concentration of capsaicin. These components of the pepper irritate the skin and cause your mouth to feel that distinct burning pain. 

5. ONLY MAMMALS ARE SENSITIVE TO IT. 

While capsaicin may burn and irritate the flesh of mammals, birds are completely immune to its effects. As a result, birds are largely responsible for helping wild peppers spread by eating them and excreting the seeds. 

6.  ALL BELL PEPPERS ARE THE SAME PLANT.  

While the peppers definitely look different, all colors are actually all the same fruit in varying levels of maturity. The peppers start off green, then turn yellow, and finally red (but some of the time the orange or yellow is the fully mature color). Green peppers taste more bitter than their counterparts because they lack the same chemicals and vitamins that the more mature fruits develop. Thanks to a supply of chemicals like vitamin C and beta-carotene, orange and red bell peppers have a much sweeter taste. You may have noticed that these differences affect the prices at the grocery store. Jalapeños also turn red, but are usually picked before they're ripe.

7. BELL PEPPERS CAN BE PURPLE. 

Red, green, orange, and yellow bell peppers regularly line the produce aisle—but the mild, sweet pepper can also be purple! When harvested in the early stages of maturation—before developing any yellow, orange, or red spots—bell peppers can be a beautiful shade of aubergine, with striking white or lime green interiors. 

8. THERE'S A HOTNESS SCALE FOR PEPPERS. 

There is a very strict and definitive scale for ranking your pepper’s hotness. Called the Scoville scale, it’s named after a pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville. Scoville wanted a standard measurement with which to compare pepper hotness, but found the only way to do so was by human taste; the tongue could detect lower concentrations of capsaicin than machines could. To perform the test, dried pepper is soaked in alcohol and then diluted in sugar water. The solution is diluted more and more until a panel of five trained testers can no longer detect it. The more dilution needed, the more units of heat the pepper has. Mercifully, this method isn’t used much anymore. Instead, scientists use high-performance liquid chromatography to extract the capsaicin and calculate a corresponding Scoville score. But true chili-heads argue that this method understates the real heat by around 30 percent compared to the real Scoville. 

The more mild bell peppers fall within the 1-100 SHU (Scoville Heat Units) side of the scale, while hotter peppers like cayenne are more like 30,000 – 50,000 SHU. If you’re curious about what’s at the very end of the spectrum, the spiciest pepper known to man is called the Carolina Reaper, which can get up to 2.2 million SHU. 

9. YOU CAN PLAY PEPPER ROULETTE.  

In Japan, there is a type of pepper called shishito. The unusual pepper is usually about as mild as a bell pepper—except for the rare case when it’s not. One out of every ten of these will be pretty spicy. Generally, these spicy outliers are still less hot than your run-of-the-mill jalapeño, but they’re hot enough to make eating a batch a fun game of chance.

10. CHIPOTLE AND JALAPENO PEPPERS ARE THE SAME PLANT.  

The two spicy peppers are known for having their own distinct tastes, but that’s a result of how they’re treated after being harvested. Chipotle peppers are really just red jalapenos that have been smoke-dried. 

11. CHILI PEPPERS HAVE A LOT OF VITAMIN C. 

Most people may think of oranges as the best source of vitamin C, but really there are a lot of foods that beat its supply. Chili peppers, for example, have about 107 mg of the good stuff, compared to an orange’s 69 mg. 

12. CHILI PEPPERS' SPICE IS A DEFENSE MECHANISM.

Scientists believe that the capsaicin in peppers exists to keep infestations of fungi at bay. Insects like to poke holes in the skin of fruits, and as a result, harmful fungi can make their way in. To combat this, a pepper’s capsaicinoids can slow the growth of the microbes. Since birds are immune to the burn, it doesn’t affect their appetite and the plant can still spread its seeds successfully. To prove this theory, scientists have found that peppers growing in areas with a lot of insects tend to be much spicier than others living in more bug-free zones. 

13. EAT A PEPPER IF YOU HAVE A STUFFY NOSE.

In addition to making your tongue hurt, capsaicin can also help unblock your sinuses. While this is not a good fix if you’re having trouble breathing (please see a doctor if this is the case!), a spicy pepper can help open things up and relieve congestion. The peppers keep your mucous thin, and as a result, lower your chances of a sinus infection. While there’s some evidence that suggests chili pepper sprays help your stuffy nose, don’t go buying a bunch of chilis just yet: Most evidence is largely anecdotal, and some spicy foods can actually aggravate sinusitis. 

14. SOME PEPPERS ARE HOT ENOUGH TO "BURN" THROUGH GLOVES.

The Trinidad Moruga Scorpion is the second hottest pepper in the world, and while it was being test-harvested, the capsaicin levels were so high that it soaked through the harvesters’ latex gloves onto their hands, a first for the experimenters. The extremely hot pepper can be 1.2 million SHU, so it’s not hard to see how this fiery food could do some damage. Taste testers described the taste as something that builds and builds until it’s absolutely unbearable. 

15. CAYENNE PEPPER CAN BE USED FOR FIRST AID.

Drop the band-aids and run to the kitchen: A popular natural remedy, when applied topically, cayenne pepper can help stop bleeding. The cayenne can either be sprinkled on the injury directly or diluted in water and soaked into a bandage. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the powder helps equalize blood pressure, meaning less blood will pump out of the wound and it will clot faster. Some even believe that the pepper will help alleviate pain—something normal bandages can’t do. 

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The Science Behind Why We Crave Loud and Crunchy Foods
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A number of years ago, food giant Unilever polled consumers asking how the company might improve their popular line of Magnum ice cream bars. The problem, respondents said, was that the chocolate coating of the bars tended to fall off too quickly, creating blotches of sticky goo on carpeting. Unilever reacted by changing the recipe to make the chocolate less prone to spills.

When they tested the new and improved product, they expected a warm reception. Instead, they got more complaints than before. While the updated bar didn’t make a mess, it also didn’t make the distinctive crackle that its fans had grown accustomed to. Deprived of hearing the coating collapse and crumble, the experience of eating the ice cream was fundamentally changed. And not for the better.

Smell and taste researcher Alan Hirsch, M.D. refers to it as the “music of mastication,” an auditory accompaniment to the sensory stimulus of eating. “For non-gustatory, non-olfactory stimulation, people prefer crunchiness,” he tells Mental Floss. Humans love crunchy, noisy snacks, that loud rattling that travels to our inner ear via air and bone conduction and helps us identify what it is we’re consuming. Depending on the snack, the noise can reach 63 decibels. (Normal conversations are around 60 dB; rustling leaves, 20 dB.)

When we hear it, we eat more. When we don’t—as in the case of Magnum bars, or a soggy, muted potato chip—we resort to other senses, looking at our food with doubt or sniffing it for signs of expiration. Psychologically, our lust for crispy sustenance is baked in. But why is it so satisfying to create a cacophony of crunch? And if we love it so much, why do some of us actually grow agitated and even aggressive when we hear someone loudly chomping away? It turns out there’s a lot more to eating with our ears than you might have heard.

 
 

The science of crunch has long intrigued Charles Spence, Ph.D., a gastrophysicist and professor of experimental psychology and head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford. Food companies have enlisted him and consulted his research across the spectrum of ingestion, from packaging to shapes to the sound chips make rustling around in grocery carts.

“We’re not born liking noisy foods,” he tells Mental Floss. “Noise doesn’t give a benefit in terms of nutrition. But we don’t like soggy crisps even if they taste the same. Missing the sound is important.”

In 2003, Spence decided to investigate the sonic appeal of chips in a formal setting. To keep a semblance of control, he selected Pringles, which are baked uniformly—a single Pringle doesn't offer any significant difference in size, thickness, or crunch from another. He asked 20 research subjects to bite into 180 Pringles (about two cans) while seated in a soundproof booth in front of a microphone. The sound of their crunching was looped back into a pair of headphones.

After consuming the cans, they were asked if they perceived any difference in freshness or crispness from one Pringle to another. What they didn’t know was that Spence had been playing with the feedback in their headphones, raising or lowering the volume of their noisy crunching [PDF]. At loud volumes, the chips were reported to be fresher; chips ingested while listening at low volume were thought to have been sitting out longer and seemed softer. The duplicitous sounds resulted in a radical difference in chip perception. It may have been a small study, but in the virtually non-existent field of sonic chip research, it was groundbreaking.

A view inside a potato chip bag
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For Spence, the results speak to what he considers the inherent appeal of crunchy foods. “Noisy foods correlate with freshness,” he says. “The fresher the produce, like apples, celery, or lettuce, the more vitamins and nutrients it’s retained. It’s telling us what’s in the food.”

Naturally, this signal becomes slightly misguided when it reinforces the quality of a potato chip, a processed slab of empty calories. But Spence has a theory on this, too: “The brain likes fat in food, but it’s not so good at detecting it through our mouths. Noisy foods are certainly fattier on average.”

Fatty or fresh, raising decibels while eating may also have roots in less appetizing behaviors. For our ancestors who ate insects, the crunch of a hard-bodied cricket symbolized nourishment. In a primal way, violently mincing food with our teeth could also be a way to vent and dilute aggression. “There are some psychoanalytic theories related to crunchiness and aggressive behavior,” Hirsch says. “When you bite into ice or potato chips, you’re sublimating that in a healthy way.”

 
 

All of these factors explain why crunch appeals to us. But is it actually affecting what we taste?

Yes—but maybe not the way you’d think. “Sound affects the experience of food,” Spence says. “The noise draws attention to the mouth in the way something silent does not. If you’re eating pâté, your attention can drift elsewhere, to a television or to a dining companion. But a crunch will draw your attention to what you’re eating, making you concentrate on it. Noisy foods make you think about them.”

That crunch can also influence how much food we consume. Because noisy foods tend to be fatty, Spence says, they’ll retain their flavor longer. And because the noise reinforces our idea of what we’re eating, it affords us a sense of security that allows us to keep consuming without having to look at our snack—not so important in a brightly-lit room, but crucial if we’re in a dark movie theater. “It becomes more important when you can’t see what you’re eating,” Spence says.

Thanks to this hard-wired feedback, the snack industry has made it a priority to emphasize the sounds of their foods in both development and marketing. In the 1980s, Frito-Lay funded extensive work at a Dallas plant that involved $40,000 chewing simulators. There, they discovered the ideal breaking point for a chip was four pounds per square inch (PSI), just a fraction of what we might need to tear into a steak (150 to 200 PSI). The quality and consistency of the potatoes themselves is also key, according to Herbert Stone, Ph.D., a food scientist who has worked with companies on product development. “Too thick, too hard, and people don’t like them,” Stone tells Mental Floss. “Too thin and they just crumble.”

The right potato sliced at the right thickness with the right oil at the right temperature results in a solid chip—one resilient enough to make for a satisfying break when it hits your molars, but vanishing so quickly that your brain and body haven’t even processed the calories you’ve just taken in. “If they pick it up and put it in the mouth and the crunch is not what they expect, they might put it down,” Stone says. “It’s about expectation.”

A shopper examines a bag of potato chips
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Walk down the snack aisle in your local supermarket or glance at commercials and you’ll find no shortage of claims about products being the boldest, crunchiest chip available. For years, Frito-Lay marketed Cheetos as “the cheese that goes crunch!” Even cereals try to capitalize on the fervor, making mascots—Snap, Crackle, and Pop—out of the sound their Rice Krispies make when submerged in milk. One ad for a brand of crisps drew attention for “cracking” the viewer’s television screen.

For most consumers, the promise of sonic flavor will draw their attention. But for a small number of people diagnosed with a condition dubbed misophonia, the sound of a co-worker or partner crunching on chips isn’t at all pleasurable. It’s insufferable.

 
 

According to Connecticut audiologist Natan Bauman, M.D., the average noise level of someone masticating a potato chip is between 25 to 35 decibels. (Other sources peg it as closer to 63 dB when you're chewing on a chip with your mouth open, or 55 dB with your lips closed.) When you hear your own chewing, the sound is being conducted both via the air and your own bones, giving it a distinctively unique sound. (Like talking, hearing yourself chewing on a recording might be troubling.)

For someone suffering from misophonia, or the literal hatred of specific sounds, it's not their own chomping that's the problem. It's everyone else's.

When we chew, Bauman says, the auditory cortical and limbic system areas of our brain are lighting up, getting information about freshness and texture. But people with misophonia aren’t struggling with their own sounds. Instead, they're affected by others typing, clicking pens, or, more often, chewing. The sound of someone snacking is routed from the cochlea, or cavity in the inner ear, and becomes an electric signal that winds up in the brain’s amygdala, which processes fear and pleasure. That's true for everyone, but in misophonics, it lands with a thud. They’ve likely developed a trigger, or negative association, with the sounds stemming from an incident in childhood.

“If you are scolded by a parent and they happen to be eating, or smacking, it becomes negative reinforcement,” Bauman says. Chewing, lip smacking, and even breathing become intolerable for sufferers, who often feel agitated and nervous, with corresponding increases in heart rate. Some fly into a rage.

Misophonics don’t necessarily recoil at all of these sounds all of the time: It may depend on who’s doing the snacking. Often, it’s a co-worker, spouse, or family member munching away that prompts a response. Fearing they’ll damage that relationship, sufferers tend to vent online. The misophonia subreddit is home to threads with titles like “And the popcorn eater sits RIGHT next to me on the plane” and “Chips can go f-ck themselves.” (The entire content of the latter: “F-ck chips, man. That is all.”)

Bauman says misophonia can be treated using cognitive therapy. An earpiece can provide white noise to reduce trigger sounds while sufferers try to retrain their brain to tolerate the noises. But even the sight of a bag of chips can be enough to send them scrambling.

People with misophonia might also want to exercise caution when traveling. Although some Asian cultures minimize crunchy snacks because loud snacking is considered impolite, other parts of the world can produce noisier mealtimes. “In parts of Asia, you show appreciation for food by slurping,” Spence says. Slurping is even associated with a more intense flavor experience, particularly when it’s in the setting of a comparatively quiet dining establishment.

Western culture favors noisier restaurants, and there’s a good reason for that. Supposedly Hard Rock Café has mastered the art of playing loud and fast music, resulting in patrons who talked less, ate faster, and left more quickly, allowing operators to turn over tables more times in an evening.

Spence believes sound will continue to be important to gastronomy, to chefs, and to food companies looking to sell consumers on a complete experience. Snack shelves are now full of air-puffed offerings like 3-D Doritos and Pop Chips that create pillows of taste. With less volume, you’ll snack more and crunch for longer periods.

A woman snacks on a chip
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But the sound of the chip is just one part of the equation. The way a bag feels when you pick it up at the store, the aroma that wafts out when you first open the bag, the concentration of flavor from the granules of seasoning on your fingers—it’s all very carefully conducted to appeal to our preferences.

“When we hear the rattle of crisps, it may encourage people to start salivating, like Pavlov’s dogs,” Spence says, referring to the Russian scientist who trained his canines to salivate when he made a certain sound. We’re conditioned to anticipate the flavor and enjoyment of chips as soon as we pick up a package. Even hearing or saying the words crispy and crunchy can prime us for the experience.

When we’re deprived of that auditory cue, we can get annoyed. After news reports emerged that Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi had mentioned her company might consider a quieter version of Doritos for women—an idea PepsiCo later denied they would label in a gender-specific fashion—women Doritos enthusiasts rallied around the Texas state capitol, condemning the perceived gender discrimination. To protest the possible dilution of their favorite snack, they made a spectacle of crunching Doritos as loudly as they could.

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London Grocery Chain Encourages Shoppers to Bring Their Own Tupperware
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Why stop at bringing your own grocery bags to the store? One London grocery wants you to BYO-Tupperware. The London Evening Standard reports that a UK chain called Planet Organic has partnered with Unpackaged—a company dedicated to sustainable packaging—to install self-serve bulk-food dispensers where customers can fill their own reusable containers with dry goods, cutting down on plastic packaging waste.

To use the system, customers walk up and weigh their empty container at a self-serve station, printing and attaching a label with its tare weight. Then, they can fill it with flour, nuts, or other kinds of dry goods, weigh it again, and print the price tag before taking it up to the check out. (Regular customers only have to weigh their containers once, since they can save the peel-off label to use again next time.)

Planet Organic is offering cereals, legumes, grains, nuts, chocolate, dried fruit, and even some cleaning products in bulk as part of this program, significantly reducing the amount of waste shoppers would otherwise be taking home on each grocery trip.

Zero-waste grocery stores have been popping up in Europe for several years. These shops, like Berlin's Original Unverpackt, don't offer any bags or containers, asking customers bring their own instead. This strategy also encourages people to buy only what they need, which eliminates food waste—there's no need to buy a full 5-pound bag of flour if you only want to make one cake.

The concept is also gaining traction in North America. The no-packaging grocery store in.gredients opened in Austin, Texas in 2011. The Brooklyn store Package Free, opened in 2017, takes the idea even further, marketing itself as a one-stop shop for "everything that you'd need to transition to a low waste lifestyle." It sells everything from tote bags to laundry detergent to dental floss.

[h/t London Evening Standard]

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