15 Spicy Facts About Chili Peppers

istock
istock

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. 

Get Into the Halloween Spirit With Harry Potter and Star Wars Costumes and Accessories From Hot Topic

Hot Topic
Hot Topic

Halloween is fast approaching, and that means it's time to start picking up those decorations, planning your costume, and settling down for a few monster movie marathons. Hot Topic is already way ahead of you, with a selection of costumes and accessories based on fan-favorite movies and TV shows like Harry Potter, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Stranger Things, and Hocus Pocus. We've picked out some of our favorites for you to check out below.

Harry Potter

1. Beauxbatons Hat and Cape Uniform; $60

Hot Topic

If Fleur Delacour is your favorite character from the Triwizard Tournament, then this look is for you. Beauxbatons baby blue hat and cape can now be yours to prance around in and pretend you're from the magical French academy for young witches.

Buy it: Beauxbatons Hat, Beauxbatons Cape

2. Hogwarts Zip-Up Hoodie Cloak; $55

Hot Topic

One of the most iconic parts of the Hogwarts uniform is the cloak. The sweeping black robes looked so official and mystical in the movies that it almost seems wrong not to wear one if you want to be a Hogwarts student for Halloween. These hoodie cloaks are available in all four house colors.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. Hogwarts Cardigan Sweater; $49

Hot Topic

Much like the cloak, the sweater vests and cardigans the students at Hogwarts got to wear are essential to any costume. You can choose from the four house crests and colors, so you can show your allegiance while also making a fashion statement.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Hogwarts Plaid Skirtall; $45

Hot Topic

Though this isn't a look you'd recognize from the Harry Potter movies, these plaid skirtalls—skirt overalls, basically—feature the crest and colors of whichever house you represent.

Buy it: Hot Topic

Star Wars

1. The Mandalorian Helmet; $17

Hot Topic

With the second season of The Mandalorian coming out right in time for Halloween, going as one of the show's main characters is a no-brainer. And since you probably can't pull off the Baby Yoda look, this simple Mando helmet is your best option.

Buy it: Hot Topic

2. Yoda Pet Costume; $20

Hot Topic

Baby Yoda is easily the cutest thing to emerge from the new Disney+ series, and there's no shortage of merchandise with that little green face plastered across it. From Amazon Echo Dots to slippers to LEGO sets, the little rascal is everywhere. But if you're more a fan of classic Yoda, you can impose your love of the character on your dog with this costume, complete with floppy green ears and tiny Jedi robe.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Force Awakens Rey Costume; $48

Hot Topic

Rey represents a new generation of Star Wars hero, and her costume during her time on Jakku from The Force Awakens is still her most iconic look. It's also a costume that's simple enough to throw on for Halloween and still feel comfortable in.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. R2-D2 with Pumpkin Decoration; $50

Hot Topic

When trick-or-treaters stop to collect candy from your house, greet them with this inflatable R2-D2 decoration that's primed for Halloween. Standing around 3 feet tall, this will show off your love for a galaxy far, far away and your holiday spirit.

Buy it: Hot Topic

The Nightmare Before Christmas

1. Sally Scrunchies Set; $10

Hot Topic

If you're looking to embrace your The Nightmare Before Christmas love in a more subtle way, opt for these Sally-approved scrunchies that embody the colors of the movie without going too far overboard.

Buy it: Hot Topic

2. Jack Skellington Button-Up Shirt; $35

Hot Topic

If Jack Skellington is your ultimate fashion hero, then this button-up pinstriped shirt is the ticket for you. It mimics Jack's look right down to the unique bat-shaped collar.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. Jack and Sally 'Love is Eternal' Eyeshadow Palette; $17

Hot Topic

Makeup inspired by your favorite characters is the key to completing a Halloween look, and this palette will help you make a colorful, smokey eye featuring shades seen in The Nightmare Before Christmas. You can even use these colors long after Halloween is over once you've mastered your favorite style.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Zero Dog Costume; $29

Hot Topic

The real star of The Nightmare Before Christmas has to be the dog, Zero, and now you can drape your own pooch in the ghostly visage for under $30.

Buy it: Hop Topic

Other Categories

- Stranger Things
- Coraline
- Disney
- Haunted Mansion
- Hocus Pocus
- The Craft

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

A Brief History of Mashed Potatoes

mphillips007/iStock via Getty Images Plus
mphillips007/iStock via Getty Images Plus

During the Seven Years War of the mid-1700s, a French army pharmacist named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was captured by Prussian soldiers. As a prisoner of war, he was forced to live on rations of potatoes. In mid-18th century France, this would practically qualify as cruel and unusual punishment: potatoes were thought of as feed for livestock, and they were believed to cause leprosy in humans. The fear was so widespread that the French passed a law against them in 1748.

But as Parmentier discovered in prison, potatoes weren’t deadly. In fact, they were pretty tasty. Following his release at the end of the war, the pharmacist began to proselytize to his countrymen about the wonders of the tuber. One way he did this was by demonstrating all the delicious ways it could be served, including mashed. By 1772, France had lifted its potato ban. Centuries later, you can order mashed potatoes in dozens of countries, in restaurants ranging from fast food to fine dining.

The story of mashed potatoes takes 10,000 years and traverses the mountains of Peru and the Irish countryside; it features cameos from Thomas Jefferson and a food scientist who helped invent a ubiquitous snack food. Before we get to them, though, let’s go back to the beginning.

The Origins of the Potato

Potatoes aren’t native to Ireland—or anywhere in Europe, for that matter. They were most likely domesticated in the Andes mountains of Peru and northwest Bolivia, where they were being used for food at least as far back as 8000 BCE.

These early potatoes were very different from the potatoes we know today. They came in a variety of shapes and sizes and had a bitter taste that no amount of cooking could get rid of. They were also slightly poisonous. To combat this toxicity, wild relatives of the llama would lick clay before eating them. The toxins in the potatoes would stick to the clay particles, allowing the animals to consume them safely. People in the Andes noticed this and started dunking their potatoes in a mixture of clay and water—not the most appetizing gravy, perhaps, but an ingenious solution to their potato problem. Even today, when selective breeding has made most potato varieties safe to eat, some poisonous varieties can still be bought in Andean markets, where they're sold alongside digestion-aiding clay dust.

By the time Spanish explorers brought the first potatoes to Europe from South America in the 16th century, they had been bred into a fully edible plant. It took them a while to catch on overseas, though. By some accounts, European farmers were suspicious of plants that weren’t mentioned in the Bible; others say it was the fact that potatoes grow from tubers, rather than seeds.

Modern potato historians debate these points, though. Cabbage’s omission from the Bible didn’t seem to hurt its popularity, and tulip cultivation, using bulbs instead of seeds, was happening at the same time. It may have just been a horticultural problem. The South American climates potatoes thrived in were unlike those found in Europe, especially in terms of hours of daylight in a day. In Europe, potatoes grew leaves and flowers, which botanists readily studied, but the tubers they produced remained small even after months of growing. This particular problem began to be remedied when the Spanish started growing potatoes on the Canary Islands, which functioned as a sort of middle ground between equatorial South America and more northerly European climes.

It’s worth pointing out, though, that there is some evidence for the cultural concerns mentioned earlier. There are clear references to people in the Scottish Highlands disliking that potatoes weren’t mentioned in the Bible, and customs like planting potatoes on Good Friday and sometimes sprinkling them with holy water suggest some kind of fraught relationship to potato consumption. They were becoming increasingly common, but not without controversy. As time went on, concerns about potatoes causing leprosy severely damaged their reputation.

Early Mashed Potato Recipes

A handful of potato advocates, including Parmentier, were able to turn the potato's image around. In her 18th-century recipe book The Art of Cookery, English author Hannah Glasse instructed readers to boil potatoes, peel them, put them into a saucepan, and mash them well with milk, butter, and a little salt. In the United States, Mary Randolph published a recipe for mashed potatoes in her book, The Virginia Housewife, that called for half an ounce of butter and a tablespoon of milk for a pound of potatoes.

But no country embraced the potato like Ireland. The hardy, nutrient-dense food seemed tailor-made for the island’s harsh winters. And wars between England and Ireland likely accelerated its adaptation there; since the important part grows underground, it had a better chance of surviving military activity. Irish people also liked their potatoes mashed, often with cabbage or kale in a dish known as colcannon. Potatoes were more than just a staple food there; they became part of the Irish identity.

But the miracle crop came with a major flaw: It’s susceptible to disease, particularly potato late blight, or Phytophtora infestans. When the microorganism invaded Ireland in the 1840s, farmers lost their livelihoods and many families lost their primary food source. The Irish Potato Famine killed a million people, or an eighth of the country’s population. The British government, for its part, offered little support to its Irish subjects.

One unexpected legacy of the Potato Famine was an explosion in agricultural science. Charles Darwin became intrigued by the problem of potato blight on a humanitarian and scientific level; he even personally funded a potato breeding program in Ireland. His was just one of many endeavors. Using potatoes that had survived the blight and new South American stock, European agriculturists were eventually able to breed healthy, resilient potato strains and rebuild the crop’s numbers. This development spurred more research into plant genetics, and was part of a broader scientific movement that included Gregor Mendel’s groundbreaking work with garden peas.

Tools of the Mashed Potato Trade

Around the beginning of the 20th century, a tool called a ricer started appearing in home kitchens. It’s a metal contraption that resembles an oversized garlic press, and it has nothing to do with making rice. When cooked potatoes get squeezed through the tiny holes in the bottom of the press, they’re transformed into fine, rice-sized pieces.

The process is a lot less cumbersome than using an old-fashioned masher, and it yields more appetizing results. Mashing your potatoes into oblivion releases gelatinized starches from the plant cells that glom together to form a paste-like consistency. If you’ve ever tasted “gluey” mashed potatoes, over-mashing was likely the culprit. With a ricer, you don’t need to abuse your potatoes to get a smooth, lump-free texture. Some purists argue that mashed potatoes made this way aren’t really mashed at all—they’re riced—but let's not let pedantry get in the way of delicious carbohydrates.

The Evolution of Instant Mashed Potatoes

If mashed potato pedants have opinions about ricers, they’ll definitely have something to say about this next development. In the 1950s, researchers at what is today called the Eastern Regional Research Center, a United States Department of Agriculture facility outside of Philadelphia, developed a new method for dehydrating potatoes that led to potato flakes that could be quickly rehydrated at home. Soon after, modern instant mashed potatoes were born.

It’s worth pointing out that this was far from the first time potatoes had been dehydrated. Dating back to at least the time of the Incas, chuño is essentially a freeze-dried potato created through a combination of manual labor and environmental conditions. The Incas gave it to soldiers and used it to guard against crop shortages.

Experiments with industrial drying were gearing up in the late 1700s, with one 1802 letter to Thomas Jefferson discussing a new invention where you grated the potato and pressed all the juices out, and the resulting cake could be kept for years. When rehydrated it was “like mashed potatoes” according to the letter. Sadly, the potatoes had a tendency to turn into purple, astringent-tasting cakes.

Interest in instant mashed potatoes resumed during the Second World War period, but those versions were a soggy mush or took forever. It wasn’t until the ERRC’s innovations in the 1950s that a palatable dried mashed potato could be produced. One of the key developments was finding a way to dry the cooked potatoes much faster, minimizing the amount of cell rupture and therefore the pastiness of the end-product. These potato flakes fit perfectly into the rise of so-called convenience foods at the time, and helped potato consumption rebound in the 1960s after a decline in prior years.

Instant mashed potatoes are a marvel of food science, but they’re not the only use scientists found for these new potato flakes. Miles Willard, one of the ERRC researchers, went on to work in the private sector, where his work helped contribute to new types of snacks using reconstituted potato flakes—including Pringles.