What is capsaicin?

What is capsaicin?

Capsaicin is used for everything from cooking, to self-defense, to pain relief.

By Ursula Gross

Capsaicin is, simply, what makes chili peppers very hot; however, its applications are numerous. A strong alkaloid produced by the glands of a pepper, capsaicin is immune to even extreme temperatures and water, making it difficult to dilute or weaken. Capsaicin is produced where the placenta and pod wall meet at the top of a pepper, which explains why the bottom half of a pepper is less spicy than the top. Capsaicin is frequently measured in Scoville units, with Bell and sweet peppers rating less than 100 units. Habanero peppers, on the other hand, have 200,000 to 500,000 Scoville units. Pure capsaicin, however, can hardly be compared to foods – it rates 16,000,000 units.

Capsaicin has no flavor or odor, so it is easy to add to any recipe in small amounts. Although it will not dissolve in water, it is somewhat soluble in other foods that have alcohol, fat, or oil. As a result, food is a better choice than water when trying to cool a burning mouth. It is important to stress, however, that capsaicin is a very potent and powerful alkaloid. In fact, holding one milligram of pure capsaicin would feel like a burning coal and leave a blister with a similar effect. As a result, scientists who work with capsaicin must wear a full body suit for protection.

Despite the need for such precautions, it would be very difficult for a person to die from an overdose of capsaicin. An average person would have to consume over ten grams of pure crystalline capsaicin to go into fatal respiratory failure. A more comprehendible figure is that a person would have to drink half a gallon of hot sauce (like Tabasco) to overdose and become unconscious. The unconscious state would only last for a few hours since capsaicin is easily metabolized by the liver and flushed through the system. Infants, however, are easily susceptible to such spiciness. For the same reason why they take lower doses of medications, etc., they should be exposed to little or no capsaicin in foods. In fact, capsaicin is believed to have been used in infanticide in under-developed countries.

While capsaicin generally does not kill people, it can subdue them; capsaicin is the primary ingredient in pepper spray. Conversely, capsaicin is also used to reduce pain in muscles and joints when applied through a topical ointment. In essence, the nerves are stunned by the capsaicin, and cannot send pain signals to the brain. Salves that use capsaicin usually list it as “capsic. oleo. res.”

Although capsaicin is actively used in foods, pepper sprays, and ointments today, it was originally a product of evolution. Peppers originally produced capsaicin as a way to ward off animal predators. Though not a vital part of the pepper’s life functions, the spicy capsaicin did prevent mammals from eating peppers. Birds, however, do not register spiciness, and we able to eat peppers and excrete their seeds. In this way, capsaicin allowed the dissemination and fertilization of the pepper plant through birds.

Capsaicin is a very versatile product of nature – part self-defense, part healer. Either way, capsaicin is best taken in small doses with large amounts of education.

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