What Makes Peppers Spicy?

You know how it feels to eat spicy food. Humans have been using hot peppers in cooking for millennia. But have you ever wondered what makes peppers spicy? Here, you will learn all about what makes hot peppers hot, and some helpful tips to help reduce the pain (if you’re in need). The main cause of the heat in peppers is the chemical compound Capsaicin, which binds with pain receptors in our tissue, causing a burning sensation.

What Is Capsaicin?

You’ve may not have heard of capsaicin, but you have probably felt its effect. Capsaicin a chemical compound that is naturally found in chili peppers. When contact is made with human tissue, capsaicin causes a burning sensation. In other words, capsaicin is what makes peppers spicy.

This is what capsaicin looks like to a scientist:

Capsaicin molecular structure

Why Do Peppers Contain Capsaicin?

In short, scientists originally thought capsaicin was in peppers to deter animals from eating them, but more recent research indicates that the chemical is more likely produced to prevent insect damage and fungal growth on the peppers.

Capsaicin binds with certain pain receptors, causing the familiar burning sensation, however it is not an actual burn. No damage is caused to the tissue, and instead it just feels painful. This reaction to capsaicin originally led scientists to believe that the pepper plant use it to deter animals from eating their fruits. This was odd, because most plants actually encourage animals to eat their fruits in order to spread seeds via mobile mammals. However, most stomach acid causes damage pepper seeds, with the exception of birds. And birds can’t feel the burn from hot peppers.

“Birds are indifferent to the pain-producing effects of capsaicin and therefore serve as vectors for seed dispersal.”

Birds vs Spicy Peppers

So it all made sense; most animals destroy pepper seeds when they eat them, and they don’t like the pain of eating the peppers. Meanwhile, birds don’t destroy seeds, and they can’t feel the pain of capsaicin. It seemed like a symbiotic relationship between pepper plants and birds, for spreading seeds and eating respectively.

However, more recently, capsaicin was found to be helpful in preventing mold growth on peppers in humid climates. This is now accepted as the primary reason that peppers produce capsaicin. Check out this video explaining more interesting research on this topic.

Where is Capsaicin Found In Peppers?

The highest content of capsaicin in peppers is within the placenta or “pith” portion of the flesh. This is the membrane that suspends the seeds inside of the pepper. As a result, removing the seeds is often recommended when cooking to reduce the spiciness level of a dish. It is also the portion of the pepper to be careful to avoid touching when cutting peppers.

Anatomy of a pepper diagram and insides
Pepper Anatomy Diagram.

Capsaicin will cause irritation to any part of your body that it touches, so be careful of the hands, eyes and any other sensitive skin.

Do Pepper Seeds Contain Capsaicin?

Pepper seeds are often said to be the spiciest part of a hot pepper. However this is technically not true. The most spicy portion of a pepper is the placenta, or pith, not the seeds themselves. The pepper seeds often have residual capsaicin on their surface due to contact with the placenta, but the actual seeds do not contain any capsaicin.

Pepper Seeds

It is still best practice to remove the seeds in order to reduce spiciness when cooking. If you remove the seeds, chances are you will also remove most of the placenta, as the seeds are connected.

How To Stop Spicy Pepper Mouth

Did you eat a pepper that was way too hot? It’s pretty easy to pick up a few habanero peppers or even ghost peppers at the supermarket. But most are not ready for the intense pain that comes with eating these highly spicy peppers. Here are the 3 best methods for reducing that burning in the mouth and lips.

  1. Drink Dairy Milk. If you have any milk, go drink it. No milk? Try any dairy, like ice cream or cheese. The compound “casein” in dairy products binds with capsaicin (the spicy molecule) and helps reduce the burn.
  2. Drink a Bit of Olive Oil. This may seem odd, but capsaicin is an oil based compound that repels water. This means that water will have no effect on washing away the burn. Instead, try swishing a small amount of oil in your mouth and either spitting it out or swallowing it.
  3. Eat Bread. This doesn’t work as well as drinking milk, but it can help relieve some burn in the mouth, and can also help reduce stomach discomfort (especially when consumed before eating spicy food).

Tip: Avoid getting pepper juices on your lips. This can be more painful and more difficult to cure than heat on the tongue.

How To Stop Spicy Pepper Burn On Skin

Pepper Burn on Hand

Did you cut some hot peppers without gloves? Feeling the burn hours later? This is a painful issue, but thankfully we’ve got 3 great methods for reducing pepper burn on the skin:

  1. Rub With Oil. Use olive oil or vegetable oil on a paper towel and rub into the affected skin. This can help dilute the concentration of capsaicin on the skin and reduce the burning sensation. Do this for 10 or more minutes to reduce the pain considerably.
  2. Submerge in Milk or Alcohol. Using milk on the skin works the same way that it does in the mouth. Casein, a protein found in milk, binds with capsaicin and helps flush away the burning feeling. Don’t have milk? Try a high proof alcohol or rubbing alcohol instead. Capsaicin is soluble in alcohol.
  3. Don’t Shower. Don’t take a shower until you start to feel better, because being exposed to hot water and mist will exacerbate the burning feeling. Also, capsaicin repels water, so the water will not help remove it.

Good to know: Capsaicin does not cause any damage to your tissue. However, without taking action, burning on the skin can last for several hours because there is not any constant flushing as there is in the mouth.

Try one of our methods and you are sure to get relief from pepper burns on the skin quickly.

Is Capsaicin a Pain Reliever?

While the initial sensation from contacting capsaicin is burning, the chemical compound is actually an analgesic. This means that capsaicin acts to relieve pain on a biological level. This is why many capsaicin creams and gels are now available for those suffering from various painful conditions.

On a technical level, capsaicin is both a TRPV1 agonist, and a non-narcotic analgesic. Put more simply, capsaicin does act as a pain reliever (analgesic) at the chemical level. It is used to control peripheral nerve pain, and is commonly used for people suffering from neuralgia. Ask your doctor before trying this method for pain relief.

The Hot Pepper Scale

The Scoville Scale

Different Pepper Heats

The Scoville Scale is the scale that is used to rank peppers in heat level. The unit is the “Scoville heat unit” or SHU for short, and peppers range from 0 to 2,000,000 and more. Higher SHU ranking means a higher concentration of the chemical compound capsaicin.

Bell peppers contain no capsaicin. These peppers are not spicy whatsoever, but are sweet instead.

Jalapeno peppers rank around 5,000 SHUs, and are one of the most common “hot” peppers.

Habanero peppers rank around 200,000 SHUs or more, and are where “spicy” starts to become “painful.”

Ghost peppers rank around 1,000,000 SHUs, and were originally the world’s hottest known pepper. That was, until…

Carolina Reaper peppers rank around 2.2 million SHUs, and are still the leading hot pepper in the world. Most people wouldn’t touch these with a ten foot pole, nevermind their tongue.

There are many other types of peppers all around the world, ranking all across the Scoville scale. If jalapenos are just not quite enough, but habaneros are too much, use the Scoville scale chart above to find one in the right zone.

Want to try one of the world’s hottest peppers? You can grow them yourself, or buy them dried here. Learn how to rehydrate dried peppers on our article about it here.

Hot Sauce Giveaway

We hope you learned a lot about what makes peppers spicy throughout this article. Still have questions? Leave us a comment or contact us and we’ll be happy to respond!

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