Chillies Around the World

This is an article I wrote for something else, but it was really interesting to write about so I wanted to share. I’ve modified it here so I’m not plagiarising my own work!

Do you like spice?  I sure do and some of my favorite foods incorporate a lot of it.  Ethiopian, Indian, Thai, and Mexican foods are some of my favorite cuisines and they all use chillies of some sort. When I was in the tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan I was surprised to learn that this country, situated about 27 degrees north of the equator, uses a lot of chillies in many of their dishes as well. My eyes were watering, nose running, and lips burning from all the heat.  Yet, I enjoyed the pain and ordered traditional Bhutanese foods at every meal. Why do we do enjoy spicy foods that cause us pain? As it turns out, the heat in chillies is from a compound called capsaicin, which is the part of the pepper that attaches the seeds to the fruit. When we eat it, endorphins are released and we feel a “rush,” that’s why we keep eating them. Interesting, right? In addition to their heat and endorphin raising qualities, chillies provide a host of health benefits and have an interesting history.

Thai Cashew Chicken. One of many versions, but this one had a LOT of chillies in it.

Chillies are a popular spice and vegetable the world over, but their origins are in Central and South America. Over time, they landed in other parts of the world and are typically used in cuisines found within 20 degrees of the equator, so the tropics. Capsaicin has anti-microbial properties and plays a role in food preservation, so it makes sense for it to be used in warm climates, where food can go bad quickly. It repels microbes in humans and can kill or inhibit nearly 75% of the pathogens that lead to food spoilage. The chilli pepper has made it’s mark within many cultures and has become quite popular in the United States.

Recent studies show there are many benefits to eating this pain inducing food. Chillies contain antioxidants, vitamins C and A, can help with weight loss, may be protective against cardiovascular disease and diabetes, have been used to treat chronic pain and osteoarthritis, and when applied topically, can be effective in pain reduction. A study conducted in China showed regular chilli consumers (1-2 times per week) had a 10% lower mortality rate than people who ate spicy foods less frequently, and those who ate spicy food daily had an even lower risk of death. (I didn’t change any of this paragraph). 

Chillies play a role in satiety so they can help with weight loss. Our stomach receptors enable us to recognize when we are full when eating a spicy meal, so we eat less. Furthermore, some studies show increased metabolic activity in mice, leading to more overall calories burned. The compounds in chillies may break down LDL, the “bad” cholesterol, leaving HDL, or the “good” cholesterol intact, one of the mechanisms decreasing the risk for heart disease.  Chilli peppers can provide up to 40% of our Vitamin C needs per day. This is important because it helps synthesize collagen, carnitine, hormones, and amino acids, and it also has antioxidants.  

As you can see, there are a variety of reasons to incorporate chillies into your diet, you just have to decide how hot you want your meals to be! The heat given off by chillies is based upon Scoville units. This scale is based on human perception, but the American Spice Trade Association has created a universal scale based on ppm of capsaicinoids- the compounds in peppers that make the heat. For our purposes, let’s compare some of the common chillies we know in the United States using Scoville units:

Pure Capsaicin 16,000,000

Police Grade Pepper Spray 5,300,000

Chili de Arbol 15,000-30,000

Serrano Pepper 6,000-23,000

Jalapeño 2,500-5,000

Original Tabasco Sauce 2,500-5,000

Bell Pepper 0

Sometimes people say they don’t  eat bell peppers because they are too hot, but that’s not true! What about the ghost chili? It’s so hot it’s not even allowed in the United States: 1,000,000 Scoville units!

In addition to adding some zest to your meal, chillies are healthy, so turn up the heat! But like all things, consume in moderation. Take it from me, too many too fast can lead to temporary stomach upset. Watch the sodium content when using different hot sauces, as many of them often contain an unexpected amount of salt. 

Author: Tiffany Batsakis

Registered Dietitian Fitness Fanatic World Traveler Food Lover Weimaraner Owner

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