Peppers are known for their bold flavors, bright colors, and often, their intense heat. They can be used on their own, in sauces, or ground into spices, and growing hot peppers is wildly competitive. But there’s more to this fiery fruit (yes, fruit) than its spicy taste. Here are 12 fiery facts about peppers.
1. MILK IS THE ULTIMATE PEPPER PAIN QUENCHER.
There’s a reason why milk is the ultimate pain stopper for spicy foods. Hot peppers are packed with capsaicin, a substance that sets off heat-detecting neural sensors in the brain. Capsaicin can be hard to wash away because of its natural oils, meaning a cool glass of water will just spread the heat around. The casein in milk, a fat-loving protein, easily binds with capsaicin and washes it away for cool relief. And while some people think beer or alcohol is the perfect solution to spicy foods, this theory only works with high-proof alcohol. It takes 10 ounces of 70-proof tequila to dissolve one ounce of concentrated capsaicin. If heavy amounts of alcohol or lactose products don’t sit well with your stomach, consider beating the heat with sugar, white rice, honey, or peanut butter.
2. FRUIT OR VEGETABLE? TRY NIGHTSHADE.
Peppers are a fruit, technically, but the most popular peppers we eat are also part of the nightshade family, along with tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and even tobacco. Nightshades contain an alkaloid compound called solanine, which acts as a plant’s poisonous defense against pests and blight (disease caused by fungus). Humans are usually safe from this toxin—studies on solanine-rich green potatoes show that the average person would have to eat about two pounds before getting sick.
3. PEPPERS ARE NATURAL PAIN FIGHTERS.
Modern medicine has taken a cue from old world remedies in using peppers as pain relief. Native American healers are believed to have used cayenne pepper for medicinal purposes for at least 9000 years, and traditional Chinese, Japanese, and Indian medicine also make use of pepper powder. The key is the pepper’s capsaicin, which provides pain relief when applied to skin. Scientists began studying capsaicin’s benefits in shingles recovery during the 1980s, noting that capsaicin depletes substance P, a chemical released by cells that indicates pain. Capsaicin is now a common ingredient in creams and balms used to treat arthritis, fibromyalgia, back pain, shingles, and post-surgery pains.
4. CHILE OR CHILI? THERE'S A DIFFERENCE.
"Chili" and "chile" often reference the same pepper but have different spellings based on region. Aztecs created the word "chilli" in reference to the peppers, but the spelling transformed to "chile," as used by Spanish speakers. English users have predominately used "chili," which can also be confused for the flavorful, slow-cooked meat stew. According to the Chile Pepper Institute, "chile" should be used for the plant or pepper, while "chili" should reference the dinnertime favorite.
5. ANCIENT AZTECS USED CHILE PEPPERS AS PUNISHMENT.
Misbehaving Aztec children may not have been so fond of chile peppers. That’s because chiles were used to remedy bad behavior. Unruly children would be held over the smoke from burning chile peppers as a form of discipline, which sounds brutal, considering their use in animal deterrents and pepper spray.
6. NEW MEXICO KNOWS ITS CHILE PEPPERS.
New Mexico is the top chile producing state in the U.S.—in 2015, regional farmers turned out 66,700 tons of chile peppers worth an estimated $41 million, thanks to the state’s chile-friendly climate. Chiles are so important to New Mexico’s economy—they're the state's number one cash crop—and culture that state legislators declared "Red or green?" the official state question in 1996, alluding to your chile preference.
7. FLAMINGOS ONCE DINED ON PEPPERS.
If there’s anything peppers and flamingos have in common, it’s their vibrant hues. As one way to keep captive flamingos looking rosy, zoo keepers of the past would institute diets of carrots, shrimp, and red peppers. Since flamingos get their color from carotenoids, the naturally occurring chemical that pigments red, yellow, and orange produce, it was believed this diet would be beneficial. Modern zoo keepers have since switched to synthetic products that help the birds maintain their famed color.
8. CHOCOLATE AND PEPPERS ARE A CULINARY MATCH.
Who would have thought that adding peppers to your chocolate dessert would be a great idea? Both ingredients can help draw out each other’s subtle flavors and richness. Smokey chocolates can be highlighted by adding in chipotle peppers, while chile peppers can intensify the flavors of hot chocolate. If you’re not convinced, try adding ground cayenne pepper to a basic chocolate cake mix.
9. HANGING PEPPERS AREN'T JUST DECORATIVE.
When it comes to drying peppers, you’ve likely seen large bunches hanging from shops, front porches, or patios. In pepper growing regions, such as New Mexico, these drying pepper chains—called chile ristras—are thought to bring good luck and good health (along with a delicious future meal). Chile farmers traditionally sundried their crop, but snacking birds and pests made it difficult. Over time, the peppers were hung on ristras, or strings, to safely dry.
10. NEED PAPRIKA? GRIND SOME PEPPERS.
Paprika is a commonly used spice, but many people don’t know that it’s made from peppers. A variety of sweet and chile peppers are ground to a fine powder and the kind of peppers used impacts the final color. While "generic" paprika is generally a blend of mild peppers, other kinds like Hungarian and Spanish paprika range in hotness and sweetness. Can’t find a paprika blend that suits your tastes? It’s a long process, but you can create your own version at home.
11. PEPPERS WON'T RUIN YOUR TASTE BUDS.
Contrary to urban legend, eating too-hot peppers won’t kill off your taste buds. Capsaicin triggers heat-sensing receptors in the brain but isn’t physically burning your mouth. While some peppers can leave you lingering in pain for hours, there’s no long-term damage. But if you can’t stay away from spicy foods, slowly integrate hotter spices to build up your capsaicin resistance.
12. PEPPERS AREN'T RELATED TO PEPPERCORNS.
The ground pepper sitting on your dining table isn’t a relative to the vibrant peppers we slice, dice, and stuff. Ground black pepper comes from the Piper nigrum plant, a flowering vine that produces a string of small, round fruit called peppercorns. After harvesting, peppercorns are dried and ground to make the everyday pepper we sprinkle on meals. Ground pepper also comes in a variety of colors and flavors, but unlike its spicy counterpart, it’s a bit more palatable to those with sensitive taste buds.
All images via iStock.