Chili pepper is a widespread and widely used condiment in Italian cuisine, so much so as to be the characterizing element of some typical dishes such as spaghetti with garlic, oil and chi lli , and penne pasta with arrabbiata . The properties of chilli are numerous, it is a food that contains many beneficial substances for the body.
Chilli is the fruit of the Capsicum plant from which peppers and chillies are made. An annual plant belonging to the Solanaceae family , the same as potatoes, aubergines, tomatoes and tobacco. According to some, the Latin name Capsicum derives from Capsa , which means box and owes its name to the shape of the fruit: an elongated berry containing seeds.
There are 5 species of this plant from which cultivations of peppers differ in flavor and degree of spiciness.
Hints of botany
Capsicum Annum is a perennial shrub which, in favorable climate conditions, is grown as an annual plant.
The plants appear in bushes of variable height ranging from 20 to 80 cm, with light green leaves and with white flowers and yellow petals. Depending on the species, the plants have different heights and have a resistance to the cold and hot climate.
The best known crops of this plant are the Italian varieties such as Calabrian chillies , friggitelli and also the best known ones such as cayenne pepper, paprika, jalapeno and charleston.
This species of chillies is typical of Latin America. Among the baccatums there are ornamental chillies and the aji species. A type of chilli peppers with moderate spiciness widely used in cooking. From this plant is also grown “” Aji amarillo “a Peruvian pepper, used in the ceviche, considered a national dish.
Frutescens is the species to which spicier peppers than the previous belong, such as tabasco, from which the famous sauce is obtained.
To this species belong the hottest peppers in the world, containing a very high percentage of capsaicin: Naga Morich, Habanero Red Savina and Carolina Reaper who obtained the highest score on the Scoville scale.
The plant has black flowers and purple seeds. The fifth species, which includes spicy chillies widespread in Bolivia, Peru and Mexico. Among the chillies we remember the rocoto.
Chili plants do not require a large amount of soil, therefore they can also be grown on the balcony.
The fruits are harvested in summer and autumn and should be consumed immediately to avoid losing the precious properties.
However, they can be dried in the sun and powdered or frozen, in this way it is possible to prolong their conservation and properties.
Scoville scale to measure spiciness
The Scoville scale is used to measure the degree of spiciness of the chili pepper, from the name of the chemist who invented it.
The scale measures the amount of capsaicin present in the fruit. The calculation ranges from 0, in the case of sweet pepper that does not contain capsaicin, to 15 million, which corresponds to pure capsaicin.
The chillies grown in Italy have a value on the Scoville scale of 5 thousand units, while very spicy chillies such as the Habanero, reach 300,000 units on the Scoville scale.
The history of the chili pepper
This fruit is so versatile in the kitchen that it is grown almost all over the world. In Mexico there are traces of its use already in pre-Christian times. Thanks to Cristoforo Colombo, the chili pepper then arrived on our tables, with its spicy taste, its bright color and its benefits for the well-being of the organism. His arrival in Europe occurred during Columbus’ second voyage, around 1943.
Historical sources believe that Columbus imported the variety of Scoth Bonnet pepper, a berry of the Capsicum Chinense plant, a species widespread on the Caribbean island where the conqueror landed.
After its arrival in Europe, chilli was very successful and was used in place of other very expensive spices whose plants could not be grown, such as cinnamon and nutmeg. Its adaptability to different climates and soils, in fact, made it easily cultivable and therefore lost the exclusivity that the Spaniards hoped would share with other spices at the time imported from the new continent. Chili pepper is currently grown throughout Europe and America and is widely known and used in cooking.
Chili pepper properties
The nutritional values of the chili pepper
Energy Kcal 30
Available carbohydrates 3.08
Soluble sugar 1.5
Total Fiber 2.0
Sodium 7 mg
Potassium 230 mg
Calcium 18 mg
Phosphorus 18 mg
Iron 0.5 mg
Thiamine 0.09 mg
Riboflavin 0.23 mg
Niacin 3 mg
Vitamin C 229 mg
Vitamin A 824 (μg)
Capsaicin: what it is and how it works
Much of the properties of chilli are due to the presence of an alkaloid: capsaicin. It is the substance that makes it spicy, but also digestive, and analgesic.
Discovered in 1816 by Bucholtz, who isolated the spicy substance of chillies. Subsequently, in 1846, LT Thresh synthesized the extracted substance in crystalline form and called it capsaicin.
In 1878 the Hungarian scientist Hogyes showed that this substance stimulates the mucous membrane of the stomach and increases the production of gastric juices.
It is present in different concentrations in the various types of chilli peppers, and this is why some are more bearable and pleasant, others, on the other hand, “burn” much more. Capsaicin is one of the substances with which tear gas and stinging gases that are not dangerous to health are also produced.
Thanks to this alkaloid, chilli pepper , always taken in moderation because it can be irritating to the gastric mucosa, is rich in health benefits.
Source of vitamin C
The chili pepper is rich in vitamin C, 100 grams of product contain 229 milligrams of it. It was during the study of the beneficial properties of this fruit that the Hungarian scientist Szent Gyorgyi discovered vitamin C , a discovery that earned him the Nobel Prize for medicine.
The Vitamin C is an antioxidant complex able to defend the body against infections and cardiovascular problems. Furthermore, its antioxidant power counteracts the free radicals responsible for cellular oxidation.
Vitamins and minerals
The chili pepper also contains vitamins E and A and the presence of carotenoids, precursors of vitamin A , is also generous , also with strong antioxidant properties.
In the mix of nutritional properties , there are also mineral salts, especially potassium, calcium and phosphorus .
Benefits of hot pepper
Ally of the heart and circulation
According to some recent research, the chili pepper would be a real ally of the heart and cardiovascular health. In particular, a study conducted by the University of Vermont and published on Plos One has shown that the usual consumption of chilli is associated with a reduction in mortality of 13%. By habitual consumption is meant at least once a month, and mortality refers to that due to heart disease in general and stroke in particular. Also in this case a key role is played by capsaicin which gives the chilli pepper natural vasodilating properties, able to relax the blood vessels and lower the pressure .
Chili pepper: mine of antioxidants
Chilli is the subject of many researches also in the oncological field , mainly due to the high concentration of antioxidants which as we know play a role in contrasting the action of free radicals, the cause of cellular oxidation. One of the most recent studies is the one presented at Experimental Biology 2019 during the annual meeting of the American Society for Investigative Pathology.
According to the team of researchers, chilli capsaicin has properties that can slow the advancement of lung cancer metastases.
Natural fat burner
Chilli is often defined as a sort of natural fat burner, again thanks to capsaicin which stimulates the metabolism and acts on fat deposits through the process of thermogenesis. The sensation of heat perceived when taking chili pepper does not represent a real rise in temperature. Capsaicin, acting on the bat receptors located in the brown adipose tissue, therefore releases fat cells in the form of heat and energy instead of storing them.
Digestive and analgesic
The chilli favors the production of gastric juices , which makes it a good ally of digestion. Its antibacterial properties also contribute to this , which help to remove and eradicate any viruses present in the intestinal environment. Always capsaicin would also perform an analgesic action useful in particular for muscle and rheumatic pain. As well as for internal use, through nutrition, it seems that the chili pepper has an efficacy also for external use , applied directly on the painful area.
Although for the scientific community there are no foods with aphrodisiac properties, it should of course be emphasized that some foods have a vasodilating effect, as in the case of chili peppers.
Capsaicin is a vasodilator and therefore acts on the blood circulation and can thus improve sexual performance. Furthermore, the presence of the vitamin E contained in the chillies also stimulates libido and fertility.
Contraindications of hot pepper
Despite the innumerable beneficial properties, in some cases it is good not to exceed or consume the chili pepper.
The use is not recommended in cases of gastric diseases such as:
or in cases of localized inflammatory states such as:
or in cases of hepatitis
In these cases the capsaicin contained in the chilli pepper and the heat it gives off worsen these pathologies.
Chili pepper should also be excluded or very limited from the diet of pregnant or breastfeeding women, as it alters the flavor of the milk . In these cases it is good to seek advice from your doctor who will be able to advise knowing the complete clinical picture. Even in the children’s diet, chilli pepper is not recommended before the first year of life.
Capsaicin if it comes into contact with the mucous membranes of the mouth, throat or eyes can cause a strong allergy with strong irritation and watery eyes. It is therefore important to handle the peppers with latex gloves or remember to wash your hands immediately after using them.
How to neutralize the burning
As we have read, some chillies can be very spicy, sometimes even too much for our tolerance. When you happen to eat too spicy food or inadvertently eat a chili pepper used for seasoning we can neutralize it with small tricks, for example by resorting to some foods that have the ability to mitigate the burning. It is good to always remember that capsaicin is a hydrophobic substance so it does not dissolve with water but only with fat.
Some examples of foods with fats that fight capsicin :
- extra virgin olive oil
Alternative uses of hot peppers
Chili pepper oil for pain
Given the analgesic and pain-relieving properties and recognized to capsaicin, chili pepper is also used as a topical analgesic.
Specifically, cayenne pepper oil is widely used to massage sore muscles or tendons. The heat it releases relaxes the painful area giving immediate relief and a pleasant sensation.
Recipe for preparing homemade chilli oil
- 10/15 fresh chillies
- 300 ml of cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil
Grind the fresh chillies to a powder and place them in a sterilized glass jar. Pour the oil and store in the dark.
After 10 days, filter the contents of the jar with a narrow mesh strainer . The oil obtained after filtering can be massaged on the skin, in correspondence of the painful area.
The waste instead, stored in the fridge, can be used to flavor your dishes.
Use in cooking and recipes
Chili pepper is a spice widely used in Mediterranean cuisine, it is used to enrich even the simplest dishes with flavor.
It can be used fresh for the preparation of preserves or to prepare spicy creams suitable for seasoning pasta or to stuff bruschetta.
The chili is also used together with other spices for the preparation of infusions, for example, combined with ginger and lemon , or to enhance the flavor of the chocolate.
It can be used to impart spicy flavor to meats, sauces, legumes and first courses .