Why do chilies burn?
It doesn’t matter whether you love hot sauce or not, chilies burn; some people just have a higher pain threshold than others. It could be because they’ve developed a love for the world’s hottest sauces and they continue to build their tolerance. Or, it could simply be because they are birds. No, truly, birds are immune to the effects of capsaicin – the compound that gives chilies their fiery flavor.
Getting to Know Capsaicinoids
Chilies burn because of the capsaicinoid compounds they contain. The best-known compound – and the one commonly associated with chili burn is capsaicin. However, this is not the only heat-producing element found in chilies. They also contain dihydrocapsaicin. Both of these are capsaicinoid compounds, and together these are about twice as strong as the minor capsaicinoids found in chili peppers. Fortunately for hot sauce lovers, the hottest chilies contain both.
Contrary to popular belief the seeds of chili don’t naturally contain capsaicin (or other capsaicinoids). These compounds are mainly located in the white membranes inside the pepper. A little does run through the flesh of the pepper, though not nearly as much.
One of the main reasons that you’re told to remove the seeds of chili before cooking (if you’re not a fan of the heat) is because they’ve spent plenty of time hanging out next to the fiery white membrane that’s filled with capsaicin. Essentially, they’re coated in capsaicin rich oil; if you were to clean them well – they wouldn’t offer that deliciously hot chili burn. But that does seem like too much work; it’s usually easier just to scrape them out.
Why Do Chilies Burn?
And for that matter, do chilies burn at all? Can they actually singe your tender taste buds? The answer to both is a resounding NO (unless, of course, you’re doing something with these chilies that we don’t want to know about).
Chilies don’t produce any heat on their own; if they did, you couldn’t buy them in the chilled food section of your grocery store. But they do create a burning sensation when the capsaicin comes into contact with your mouth (or eyes, or even skin). But, that’s not the chilies burning – that’s your body’s reaction.
Strangely enough, capsaicin doesn’t even affect taste buds at all. It’s odorless and tasteless. Chilies burn when the capsaicin comes into contact with mucous membranes – and your mouth just happens to have a lot of them. But, the burn is the same anywhere else with similar qualities. Capsaicin triggers the pain receptors in your nerves – not your taste buds.
Now, that’s one of the reasons that people love the world’s hottest sauces. Once they’ve built up their pain threshold, they can appreciate the delicious goodness of the sauce, ignoring the burning sensation that some people simply can’t understand.
But, there’s another reason too. As capsaicin disrupts the pain sensors, this triggers the release of endorphins in order to help you cope with chili burn. You can actually achieve a natural high from eating chilies. Of course, capsaicin has also been found to block cancer cells, ward off diabetes, and cure a common cold which renders the world’s hottest sauces even more valuable.
If you’re not a chili head already, why not try to build your tolerance? Whether it’s for your health or the natural high, you’ll soon love it when chilies burn your mouth. There is one tip though, you should always work your way up through the heat – don’t try to jump into a 9 Million Scoville extract. You’re likely to become overwhelmed. Instead, why not try adding a few drops of Mad Dog 357 to your next meal. It could change your life – and it won’t actually burn your tongue.