Known scientifically as capsicums, sweet and spicy peppers are members of the nightshade family like tomatoes and eggplant.
Peppers, thought to have originated in South America, likely were spread throughout the Americas by birds over millennia. Peppers easily cross pollinate, leading to thousands of varieties and characteristics.
Peppers were not introduced to Europe or the Far East, including areas such as India, Thailand, and Sichuan China, until trade expeditions in the 1400s; now, these regions are known for their chili-filled cuisines.
Nutrition: Peppers are an excellent source of vitamin C, more than oranges, with one red bell pepper providing 300% of our daily value. Peppers are also a good source of vitamin A and bioactive compounds like anthocyanin and lutein.
Fun Fact: Green bell peppers are immature bell peppers; this is why their flavor is not as sweet and they are less expensive. Some peppers ripen first to yellow, then, orange, and finally red or brown! The riper the pepper, the higher level of vitamin A and C it contains!
FYI: Pain receptors (TRPV1) in mammals are responsible for the sensation of danger when eating spicy capsaicin. This is a trick of the brain, however, because damage is not actually being done. Birds do not have this receptor and do not perceive spiciness; this encourages them to consume and spread pepper seeds.
A hot pepper’s level of heat is rated based on the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU), created by Wilbur Scoville in 1912. One SHU is measured by identifying how many mL of sugar water is needed to neutralize the perceived heat in 1 mL of pepper oil.
Carolina Reapers tip the scale at ~2.2m SHU; Ghost Peppers measure ~1m SHU; Habaneros hit at ~250k SHU; Scotch Bonnets contain ~100k SHU; Thai peppers tally ~50k SHU; and Jalapenos have ~5k SHU.
To tame a pepper’s heat, remove the seeds and membranes where the majority of the capsaicin is stored.
Storage Tips: Store unwashed sweet and spicy peppers in the refrigerator crisper for up to two weeks.
Wear non-permeable gloves when slicing spicy peppers.
According to the American Chemical Society, whole milk or cottage cheese works the best to cool the sting of spicy peppers. Chili oil is fat-soluble so will disperse more quickly in full-fat dairy. Moreover, the casein protein in dairy surrounds the capsaicin molecules and washes them away. Dish soap and rubbing alcohol have also been shown to be effective.
Amber Phillips, MS, RD is a registered dietitian at Island Hospital. She has a Master’s degree in nutrition from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA and a Bachelor’s degree in biology from Metropolitan State University, St. Paul, MN. Phillips has a keen interest in community education. “Nutrition advice can be confusing and sometimes conflicting,” says Phillips. “My role as a dietitian is to follow the latest research and make it easy to understand for my patients and the public.” To schedule an appointment with Phillips, call (360) 299-1300 x2567.