What makes peppers hot may also be cool for what ails you

The word 'capsaicin' doesn't exactly roll over the tongue easily, but this is especially appropriate since it is the name of the chemical that makes peppers hot and gives a surprisingly wide variety of other products a real bite.

Chemical & Engineering News, the newsmagazine published by the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society, in its Nov. 3 issue traces the pepper family history and explains why the vegetable can produce a fast burn.

Capsaicin is an extremely powerful and stable alkaloid produced as a crystal by glands at the junction of the pepper's placenta and pod walls, according to Dave DeWitt, known as the "Pope of Pepper" and publisher of Fiery Foods & BBQ magazine. The chemical is found only in chili peppers.

DeWitt says capsaicin puts the sting in pepper spray, is used in repellent sprays to protect gardens from animal pests, and chemists are now developing an environmentally safe marine coating made with capsaicin that will stop barnacles from growing. The chemical also stimulates circulation, triggers pain receptor cells to release helpful endorphins, and is used in various drugs to ease the pain of arthritis and other ailments, C&EN reports.

The exploration of the chemistry of capsaicin dates to 1816 when P.A. Bucholtz found that the pungent principle of peppers could be extracted from the pods using organic solvents, according to the newsmagazine. In 1846, L.T. Thresh reported in a published paper that the main chemical component of peppers could be removed in a crystalline state and he named this chemical capsaicin.

The most well known lab work on the chemical was done by Wilbur Scoville, who in 1912 convened a panel of tasters, who rated the heat of different peppers, C&EN reports. And today the Scoville scale of units is the "rule of tongue" for rating pepper heat. For pepper lovers, the hottest rating at 300,000-500,000 goes to habaero peppers, com

Contact: Michael Bernstein
American Chemical Society

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