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.