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Prairie Fare: Hot Peppers Spice Up Menus

Hot peppers produce a burning sensation in your mouth because they contain a compound called capsaicin.

By Julie Garden-Robinson, Food and Nutrition Specialist

NDSU Extension Service

“I wouldn’t taste those peppers! Even the store owner said they’re really, really hot. We didn’t use them!” one of our program assistants exclaimed as she handed me a plastic bag containing the peppers.

I took her advice. I glanced at the innocent-looking green pods as I helped set up a photo shoot for a salsa publication we were creating. We were looking for a pepper to add to the scene.

“She spit it right out!” our program assistant added. She glanced toward another program assistant, who appeared a little embarrassed at the revelation.

I’m glad I was warned before I decided to pop one of these in my mouth, I thought to myself. I may have had a burning tongue or flames shooting out of my throat.

I visualized the perspiration-drenched guy I saw on TV in a hot pepper-eating challenge. He was trying to survive eating some of the world’s hottest peppers. He appeared to be in pain.

Why are some peppers so spicy-hot to the point of inducing perspiration and pain? Hot peppers produce a burning sensation in your mouth because they contain a compound called capsaicin.

According to some scientists, we actually build up a tolerance to hot food and may crave it after a while. When we eat super-spicy food, the nervous system responds to the pain by releasing endorphins or “feel-good” chemicals.

The heat in peppers can be measured in Scoville heat units, which is a measure of the capsaicin present. Wilbur Scoville, a chemist, developed the test for assessing the heat in chili peppers about 100 years ago.

To determine the Scoville units, dried peppers were crushed and added to a sugar-water solution. Then a panel of taste testers rated the heat level. More peppers were added until the testers could detect they were present.

His testers could handle tasting one hot pepper sample per day before their tongues needed a rest.

Peppers range in spiciness starting from zero, which is the number assigned to a sweet bell pepper. A jalapeno pepper has a Scoville rating of about 5,000, while serrano peppers have a rating of about 15,000 or more. If you really want to challenge your taste buds, try a habenero, which is known for its fiery, acidic heat and carries a rating above 300,000 Scoville units. Extremely hot peppers have values above 1 million Scoville units.

Thankfully, for human taste testers, lab equipment now can measure the capsaicin level in various types of peppers.

When you are handling hot peppers, keep in mind that the volatile oils actually can burn your skin. Wear plastic gloves to protect your hands and be careful not to touch your face or your eyes. Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly.

If you’re enjoying some spicy-hot food, be sure to have a glass of milk close at hand. The protein in milk helps counteract the burning sensation of the volatile oils in the peppers by encapsulating the oil and helping wash it away.

Along with awe-inspiring spiciness in some cases, peppers have some nutritional value. Peppers are very low in calories and an excellent source of vitamin C. One half of a bell pepper has a full day’s supply of vitamin C. Try sweet red, yellow, orange or green bell peppers on the grill for a tasty accompaniment to your summer menus.

Try this fresh salsa recipe. You can vary the heat by altering the type and amount of the peppers. Watch out for the really small hot peppers, though.

For information about preparing and preserving summer produce, visit http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/food.

Fresh Salsa

1 to 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1/3 large onion, finely chopped

1/2 large green bell pepper, finely chopped

1/2 to 1 whole jalapeno pepper, finely chopped

4 large Roma (paste) tomatoes, chopped

1 small bunch of cilantro leaves, finely chopped

Juice from 1/4 lemon

Mix ingredients together and serve, altering the recipe to suit your own taste preferences. Store covered in the refrigerator. To keep calorie and fat content low, serve with baked tortilla chips.

Note: This salsa recipe has not been tested for safety for canning or processing purposes.

Makes four servings. Each serving has 30 calories, 0 grams (g) of fat, 7 g of carbohydrate, 1 g of protein and 5 milligrams of sodium.

(Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.)

NDSU Agriculture Communication

Source:Julie Garden-Robinson, (701) 231-7187, julie.garden-robinson@ndsu.edu
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136, richard.mattern@ndsu.edu
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