Why Does Capsaicin Burn?


What makes this compound fiery when other foods and vegetables don’t carry the same fire?

We can (and do) rehash the health benefits of consuming capsaicin until the cows come home (or until we’re blue in the face, or any other archaic phrase used to denote some later or excessive time). And, there are plenty of benefits; no shortage of them really. Chili peppers reduce the free radicals in your body, reduce insulin levels, and assist in the reduction of unhealthy cholesterol levels.

But, why does capsaicin burn?  And, why do habanero and reaper peppers burn when your average green bell pepper doesn’t carry the slightest hint of fire?

A Look at the Capsaicin Compound

In case you missed all of the high school science (and it’s true, a lot of it isn’t all that useful in your daily life), everything is made from one chemical compound or another. The more complex the organism, the more molecules you’ll find within. Water is decidedly simple to understand; the human body… not so much.

Capsaicin is one group of molecules within any given chili pepper and it falls somewhere between water and the human body on the scale of complexity. The chemical formula (like H2O) for capsaicin is (E)-N-[(4-Hydroxy-3-methoxyphenyl)methyl]-8-methylnon-6-enamide).

Needless to say, unless you’re being tested on it, you probably have no need to ever memorize this or take it apart from any further.

If you were a chemist, however, there is one thing you would note immediately. That’s the connection to vanilla.

Yes, vanilla… which would have seemed as arbitrary to this conversation as cows coming home until you brought in the chemistry of the carbon-based capsaicin compound. Essentially, capsaicin is the same as vannilylamine (you’ll find the word vanilla in there) with an added 8-methyl-6-nonenoic acid.

So, Why Doesn’t Vanilla Burn?

Most of us consider vanilla to be a soothing experience. That’s obvious in the number of candles, bath soaps, and decaf lattes featuring this flavor. And, if you’ve ever had it, you know that it simply does not burn. It may not be your all-time favorite flavor, but it doesn’t bite back (unless you consume copious amounts of the vodka variety… and that’s all on you).

Vanilla doesn’t burn because it doesn’t contain the tail end of the compound that capsaicin does.

However, the vanilla “in” capsaicin counts.

It adds the V to the TRPV1 receptors that pick up on the presence of capsaicin. These receptors are sensors that produce “pain” proteins that are then sent to your brain to let you know something is wrong. There are various ways to activate these sensors. For a start, you could actually be on fire. Or, you could be far too close to the heat of a fire that your body wants to take a preemptive strike. Usually (and we’re quite grateful for this), you activate these proteins as the result of a capsaicin burn. All the elements of the capsaicin compound combine uniquely to set off this pain.

And that’s why capsaicin burns and vanilla doesn’t. Whether or not the cows will be home soon is not something we can answer.

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