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. 

This Innovative Cutting Board Takes the Mess Out of Meal Prep

There's no way any of these ingredients will end up on the floor.
There's no way any of these ingredients will end up on the floor.
TidyBoard, Kickstarter

Transferring food from the cutting board to the bowl—or scraps to the compost bin—can get a little messy, especially if you’re dealing with something that has a tendency to roll off the board, spill juice everywhere, or both (looking at you, cherry tomatoes).

The TidyBoard, available on Kickstarter, is a cutting board with attached containers that you can sweep your ingredients right into, taking the mess out of meal prep and saving you some counter space in the process. The board itself is 15 inches by 20 inches, and the container that fits in its empty slot is 14 inches long, 5.75 inches wide, and more than 4 inches deep. Two smaller containers fit inside the large one, making it easy to separate your ingredients.

Though the 4-pound board hangs off the edge of your counter, good old-fashioned physics will keep it from tipping off—as long as whatever you’re piling into the containers doesn’t exceed 9 pounds. It also comes with a second set of containers that work as strainers, so you can position the TidyBoard over the edge of your sink and drain excess water or juice from your ingredients as you go.

You can store food in the smaller containers, which have matching lids; and since they’re all made of BPA-free silicone, feel free to pop them in the microwave. (Remove the small stopper on top of the lid first for a built-in steaming hole.)

tidyboard storage containers
They also come in gray, if teal isn't your thing.
TidyBoard

Not only does the bamboo-made TidyBoard repel bacteria, it also won’t dull your knives or let strong odors seep into it. In short, it’s an opportunity to make cutting, cleaning, storing, and eating all easier, neater, and more efficient. Prices start at $79, and it’s expected to ship by October 2020—you can find out more details and order yours on Kickstarter.

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

Vermont Just Banned Residents From Throwing Food Scraps in the Trash

Compost is delicious trash salad for your soil.
Compost is delicious trash salad for your soil.
svetikd/iStock via Getty Images

Any Vermont resident who has carelessly tossed a watermelon rind into the trash bin this month is technically a lawbreaker.

On July 1, the state passed its Food Scraps Ban, which mandates that all leftover food either be composted or donated. Not only does this include inedible scraps like pits, seeds, coffee grounds, and bones, but also anything still left on your plate after a meal—pizza crusts, for example, or the square of Spam casserole your grandmother served before you could politely decline.

“If it was once part of something alive, like a plant or animal, it does not belong in the landfill,” Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation says on its website.

While it might seem like a drastic policy, Vermont has been laying the groundwork—and developing the infrastructure to maintain it—for years. In 2012, the legislature unanimously passed the Universal Recycling Law, which mapped out a step-by-step plan to cut down on landfill waste. Over the years, recyclables, yard debris, and now food scraps have all been banned from landfills [PDF]. To help residents abide by the restrictions, trash haulers have begun to offer pick-up services for the entire range of materials, and the state has budgeted around $970,000 in grant money for compost collection and processing facilities.

According to Fast Company, Vermont officials are hopeful this latest policy will help them hit their long-standing goal of reducing landfill waste by 50 percent; until now, they’ve only been able to achieve a 36-percent decrease. And it’s not just about saving space in landfills. Food decomposes more slowly in landfills, and the process produces methane—a harmful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Composting those scraps enriches the soil (and keeps garbage from smelling so putrid, too).

As for enforcing the Food Scraps Ban, they’re relying on the honor code.

“People say, ‘What does this mean with a food waste ban? [Are] people going to be out there looking in my garbage for my apple cores?'” Josh Kelly, materials management section chief at the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, told Fast Company. “That’s not the intent of this.”

The lack of consequences might diminish the efficacy of such a law in a different state, but maybe not in eco-friendly Vermont: According to a University of Vermont study, 72 percent of Vermonters already composted or fed food scraps to their animals before the Food Scraps Ban took effect.

Though Vermont is the only state so far to enact an outright ban on trashing food scraps, you don’t have to wait for your state to follow suit to make a change. Here’s a beginner’s guide to composting at home from the Environmental Protection Agency.

[h/t Fast Company]