Chile Pepper Medicine Turns Up the Heat
The mighty capsicum (botanical name for pepper) has been named 2016 Herb of the Year by the International Herb Association. As a result, these remarkable pods will be in the spotlight for their health benefits as well as for their incredible endorphin rush.
Capsaicinoids are the naturally occurring compounds that give chile peppers pungency and heat. Every type of pepper has a unique taste – from slightly floral, fruity, sweet, and spicy to pungent – and each type has a heat rating that is based on the kind and intensity of the capsaicin it contains. For example, peppers that contain only nordihydrocapsaicin (NDHC) will present a mellow, warming effect that recedes quickly and lingers briefly at the front of the mouth. In contrast, the explosive heat and pungency of pomodihydrocapsaicin (HDHC) produces a strong numbing, burning sensation in the throat and back of the tongue that is more intense and lasts longer.
Chile heads (lovers of hot peppers) have long known that the hotter the chile pepper (and the more capsaicin it contains), the greater will be the endorphin rush they experience. Endorphins are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus – when released they cause a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine. By triggering endorphins, capsaicins work as natural painkillers along with boosting memory function.
How to Gauge the Heat
Want to eat more chiles but are afraid of their blazing bite? I have two tips for helping you enjoy the incredible benefits of chiles. First, get familiar with the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) system of measuring the heat in chile peppers. The Scoville Scale is a standard measurement of the heat in chile peppers; it measures the concentration of capsaicin (the constituent that causes the skin and mouth to tingle or burn) in every type of pepper and assigns it a number from 0 to 5 million.
Secondly, start cooking with peppers that are low on the Scoville scale and begin to work your way towards a higher rated pepper. Sweet bell pepper types rate 0 to 1000 Scoville Units, which means that they are delicious (red bell peppers are sweeter than green), with no discernable burning, but are not high in capsaicin. Hungarian paprika is only slightly hotter, with 1,500 units, but it imparts an apple note that is perfect for stew and goulash dishes, or in vegetable stir-fries. Poblano chiles and New Mexican types move up the scale to 7,000 SHU and are roasted or stuffed and baked for a mildly hot experience that dissipates quickly.
My goal, when I began to grow, buy, and cook with chile peppers was to become comfortable eating cayenne peppers, which flare from 30,000 to 50,000 SHU. This is a reasonable goal to set because, as I point out below, you will enjoy significant health benefits from adding one fresh (or dried) cayenne pepper to smoothies, soups, stews, stir-fries, or other dishes at least three times per week.
I’m happy to say that it didn’t take long before I was inching my way up to Habanero type peppers, which register between 80,000 and 150,000 SHU. Then my friends at Shady Acres Herb farm in Minnesota sent me some Bhut Joloka (aka Ghost) chiles that they had grown. Although Carolina Reaper chiles register higher in SHU (1,600,000 to 2,200,000 SHU), Ghost chiles are still considered to be incendiary, combusting at 855,000 to 2,199,999 SHU. I dried my cache of Ghost red hots and sometimes, when I am feeling adventurous, I slip on a pair of disposable gloves, snip off a quarter-inch piece of pepper and dice it into teeny granules which then get added to a chowder or curry dish. This ingredient never fails to deliver the famous chile-rush.
Health Benefits of Cayenne
Being exceptionally high in vitamin A, which acts as an antioxidant to help fight aging and cell damage, cayenne peppers, and all others above them on the Scoville Heat scale, deliver an incredible array of healing gifts. Buy or grow them and use fresh, or dry and crumble them into all kinds of dishes (see “Cooking with Cayenne” below).
Here is what you can look forward to once you begin to enjoy the buzz of cayenne conflagration:
• Anti-inflammatory action – reduces the pain and swelling of arthritis. Cayenne cream or salve is applied topically to treat arthritis and muscle pain;
• Lowers cholesterol – and triglyceride levels for heart health;
• Fights bacteria and viruses – with its high vitamin C content;
• Increases circulation – by improving blood flow and stimulating sweating (an important process of detoxification). A tea made of warm water, lemon juice, and cayenne pepper is an excellent morning beverage for total body health;
• Anti-fungal properties – soak feet in warm water with one tablespoon powdered cayenne pepper to help alleviate athlete’s foot.
• Aids digestion – capsaicin stimulates the digestive tract and may give relief to people suffering from peptic ulcers by stimulating blood flow that nourishes the gastric mucosal membrane;
• Helps relieve allergies – and acts as a decongestant by stimulating the release of mucus from respiratory passages;
• Reduces blood clots – and can be used as a first response for wounds to stop bleeding.
Cooking with Cayenne
The active components that fire up chiles are the capsaicinoids, which are concentrated in the placenta, the thin white membrane surrounding a spongy white centre found in the middle of the pepper, to which the seeds are attached. According to Tucker and DeBaggio, “The pure seeds themselves contain none, or up to 10 percent, of the total capsaicinoids; the heat on the seeds primarily arises from contamination from the placenta.”
These extremely irritating components transfer easily, not only to the seeds, but to your hands, the knife and the cutting surface, and anywhere you touch with your hands, like your eyes or lips. When harvesting, handling, and cooking with hot chiles, use disposable gloves and avoid touching your face and eyes. After handling, wash hands, knives and countertops thoroughly in hot, soapy water, and rinse well.
Start with small amounts, but use cayenne pepper often so that you can gradually increase the amount with which you are comfortable. Here are some starting guidelines:
• Whole, fresh or dried: One cayenne pepper (ribs and seeds removed) in a recipe will be hot enough for a two to four-person serving dish.
• Dried, ground: A pinch and up to 1/4 tsp cayenne seeds or powder is sufficient for two to four servings. Taste and add more, if required.