This week is all about extremity. For a vegetarian who prefers one-star pad thai, heavily spiced foods are the most intense thing in my culinary world. People who pile Sriracha onto fish tacos or jalapenos on pizza amaze me, and I can’t imagine why it feels good to be sweating from the food you’re eating at the end of a meal.
But apparently it tastes good and may be beneficial for the body too.
Chili peppers are measured on the Scoville scale, which goes from zero to 16 million. Capsaicin is a chemical compound that stimulates nerve endings, like those found in the mouth, and the ratings measure the amount of its presence in peppers and foods. Peperoncini and pimentos fall at about 100 to 900 on the scale. Jalapeno peppers, Tabasco sauce and Anaheim peppers rank anywhere from 3,500 to 8,000. Most police pepper spray hits between 1.5 and 2 million.
The hottest-pepper-in-the-world award goes to the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, a blend which just took the lead in 2012, according to the Smithsonian. There’s actually a department at New Mexico State University called the Chili Pepper Institute, and after months of research there, experts discovered this heat monster.
“You take a bite. It doesn’t seem so bad, and then it builds and it builds and it builds. So it is quite nasty,” says Paul Bosland, the director of the chili institute, in a press release.
The Trinidad Moruga Scorpion has a ranking of just over 2 million on the Scoville scale. It surpassed the Naga viper pepper and Infinity pepper to earn this accolade.
Generally, people don’t consume the actual pepper. Instead, the seeds are extracted and crushed, and then added to soups, stews and sauces. Dozens of companies claim to sell the world’s “hottest hot sauce,” from Blair’s Mega Death Hot Sauce and Vicious Viper to another simply called the Widow, with a fake black spider attached to the top of the bottle.
Once an eater has chosen death-in-a-bottle, their body reacts; heavy sweating, flushed skin and lots of liquid consumption ensues. Because capsaicin is an oil-based compound it repels water. That means the old wive’s tale about drinking milk or beer — oil-based liquids — to soothe a burning mouth is true.
Spice-lovers describe a rush when they eat hot food, and it’s true that endorphins are released. This may be why people say that eating hot foods can help them lose weight — it does increase metabolism for a short time and there is a sense of euphoria.
Capsaicin is not actually a flavor, it’s a pain, reports Jason Goldman for Scientific American. It triggers pain receptors in the mouth, instead of activating taste buds like sweet or salty foods. Under this theory, eating three-alarm chili is a test of how much agony one can endure.
With this thinking, eating powerfully peppered foods is an extreme activity. It’s a test of mental and physical strength, and I’m just not up for it.
Drop the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion this week in conversation. People don’t have to know it’s not in reference to a halfpipe trick.