Capsaicin - Hot Stuff!

Capsaicin is a chemical found in hot peppers, or more specifically, plants that belong to the genus Capsicum. This is our painfully wonderful friend that makes peppers taste hot! The hotness of the taste is measured in Scoville Heat Units or SHU.

This chemical is an irritant for mammals, including humans, and provides a burning sensation to tissues it comes into contact with. It has several related compounds called capsaicinoids that are present in smaller amounts in chili peppers. They help to produce "heat" too.

The pepper plants most likely make these chemicals as a defense against certain herbivores and fungi. In pure form it is a mostly colorless, odorless, crystalline powder that is insoluble in water.

The hot stuff is abundant in the placental tissue (which holds the seeds), the internal membranes and, to a lesser extent, the other fleshy parts of the pepper. Contrary to popular belief, the seeds themselves do not produce any heat, although the highest concentration can be found in the white pith around the seeds.

Our favorite chemical is used as an additive to add "heat" to foods and is also the active ingredient in police pepper spray. It also has medical uses such as a topical pain reliever or as a remedy for headaches caused by sinus pressure. One such product is called Sinus Buster.

You can even use it to keep away pesty animals! Ground dried chilis can be added to birdseed to deter squirrels, since birds are unaffected by the hot stuff the way that mammals are. In Africa they even plant hot peppers as a barrier crop to help reduce elephant damage to the main crop! Products such as Deer Away containing pepper extracts are used to keep deer from rubbing or browsing tree seedlings.

Who knew the tasty active ingredient in hot sauce had so many other good uses?

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