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The Power of the Hot Pepper

Kate Seger

Spicy foods … they are an enigma. Love them or hate them, one can't help but be fascinated by them. From jalapeño and habanero to wasabi and red chili, spicy foods powered by hot peppers are a staple in the cuisine of countless cultures. What exactly causes that delicious discomfort that people from Latin America to the Far East have enjoyed for centuries? And why are some people so obsessed with the spice of hot peppers while others are utterly indifferent or downright turned off?

The spicy sensation that some are so smitten by is caused by capsaicin. Capsaicin is a substance found in chili peppers, which most likely evolved as a means of deterring animals and fungi from feeding upon them. In fact, there is evidence that capsaicin is the world's first anti-fungal agent, hence its broadly anti-microbial properties.

Research points to the possibility that, because of its anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties, the capsaicin in hot peppers actually has medicinal qualities. It has been used for centuries as a natural remedy for all sorts of muscle and bone pain from rheumatoid arthritis to tendonitis. Using Darwinian science, scientists like Paul Sherman have ascertained that the truth behind the baffling hot pepper might very well relate directly to the healing properties of the capsaicin found in chilis. He explains:

'Humans do what makes them feel good, and they learn from each other', adding that people in hot climates learned that spicy food is less likely to make them sick and thus they have seemingly developed a preference for it.

Paul Sherman is a professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University and he firmly believes that the enjoyment of spicy food stems from the bodies innate need to keep itself healthy. He contends that the spicy capaisin naturally present in hot peppers is full of antimicrobials which prevent food from spoiling. This is what makes tangy fair desirable.

In hot climates, microorganisms which can be unhealthy to ingest proliferate in meats and other food sources. Hot peppers used as a seasoning thus became an effective way to minimize these undesirable microorganisms and hence became a staple in the diets of peoples living in these hot climates.

Of course, there are other ways to stem the prolific breeding of micro-organisms as well, such as freezing them. This could account for why some cultures are thrilled by the spice and others are totally turned off by it. A Northern European culture would have a hard time growing chili peppers in their garden or on their farm let alone stumbling across them growing naturally. They however, had the benefit of a cool climate where microorganisms are less likely to breed in foods and meats. Natural refrigeration during winter months would preserve food so there would be no reason to add a foreign spice. This would explain why northern cultures typically have recipes that are significantly more bland and rely less upon spicy seasonings.

Of course, in a globalized culture like our variety is the spice of life. The more exposure people have to spicy foods and chili peppers growing up, the more likely they are to enjoy the taste of tangy recipes. This explains why many people who are descendants of northern cultures still enjoy adding spice to their meals.

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