Why Chillies are Spicy: the science of Heat


Chilli peppers are a staple part of the cuisine in Central America, Asia, and India. Chilli peppers are known for their heat and pungency and mainly used to add spiciness to all dishes. This spiciness and heat which chilli peppers contains comes from the compound known as Capsaicin. Capsaicin occurs in the fruits of plants which belong to Capsicum family including chilli peppers, jalapeno peppers, cayenne peppers and other chilli peppers. Capsaicin and several related compounds are called capsaicinoids are produced as a secondary metabolites by chilli peppers and related plants to fight against fungal and herbivores attack.  Capsaicin is a flavourless, odourless, colorless compound found in different amounts in chilli peppers. Capsaicin in chilli peepers is measure on the Scoville Scale and expressed in terms of Scoville Heat Units.

Mode of Action of Capsaicin

The white membranes inside a pepper contain the most capsaicin. It is irritant for mammals including humans and produces a sensation of burning when it comes in contact with any tissue on human body. That’s why, while cooking with cut chilli peppers, the capsaicin presence can cause burning sensation in hands and in eyes if you happen to touch them accidentally.

When you eat chili pepper, capsaicin binds to and activates the heat receptor proteins known as TRPV1 receptors. The transient receptor potential cation channel subfamily V member 1 (TRPV1) also known as the capsaicin receptor and vanilliod receptor 1, is a protein found in humans encoded by gene TRPV1 gene. The function of TRPV1 is detection and regulation of body temperature and it provides sensation of heat and pain. These receptors located in skin and digestive system remains inactive unless they are exposed to temperature above 107.6 degree F (42 degree C). So when you eat chilli pepper containing capsaicin, this compound binds and activates TRPV1 producing burning sensation and heat. But when you are exposed to capsaicin for long time, your pain nerve cells becomes de-sensitized to the painful stimulus. Capsaicin is an oil like compound and it repels water. And therefore drinking water after burning sensation caused by eating chillies is not very effective but drinking cold milk and at some extent cold alcoholic beverage, provides some relief as it is soluble in milk and alcohol.

Capsaicin can also stimulate the production of endorphins, because of which some people experience a sense of euphoria while eating spicy foods

Capsaicin also exhibit antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and found to be positive effect in treatment of cancer, osteoarthritis, psoriasis symptoms, weight loss and some allergic conditions.

Capsaicin has a number of non-culinary applications too, where it is used as a pain reliever andas an active ingredient in pepper spray.

Precautions while using Capsaicin

Avoid eating too much of chillies as capsaicin can lead to stomach ulcers. Drink cold water or cold milk immediately if you happen to more eat chillies accidentally. Don’t let capsaicin come in contact with your eyes and other moist mucus membranes. If you touch, use vinegar or soap to wash immediately. Try to use them in minimum quantity which is comfortable for your body and health. It is good to add some spice to food but in minimum quantity as addition of too much of capsaicin can lead to burning sensation and pain.



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