H244: Hot Chili

Well, it is never ending – this learning how to live thing. I found out this week that historically hot peppers served a very important function prior to refrigeration. The capsaicin (what makes the pepper hot) kills microbes in food. So, it makes sense for me to cultivate my taste for fresh peppers. Funny, I find I am frequently adding pepper flakes to most vegetable and egg dishes. Who knew?

I liked the following article because it also reminds me of the chemical battles that seem to be going on in the gardens in my world. Fungus, mildew, acidity versus anaerobic, metals and nitrogen - oh my. I wish my Bachelor of Science track would have had a few more science courses to help me with the soils. (I am lying. Physics nearly did me in).
WASHINGTON (AP) - Chiliheads who savor the kick of hot peppers are sampling one of the earliest examples of chemical warfare. In this case, it's a battle between the peppers and a type of microbial fungus that destroys their seeds, researchers report in Tuesday's edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They studied wild peppers growing in Bolivia.

The peppers use sugar and fats to attract birds that eat the chilies and disperse the seeds. The fungi also like fats and sugars, but they destroy the seeds.

"For these wild chilies the biggest danger to the seed comes before dispersal, when a large number are killed by this fungus," said Joshua Tewksbury, a University of Washington assistant professor of biology.

The fungus is spread by aphid-like insects, and in areas where they are more common, peppers had high levels of capsaicin, the chemicals that give peppers their heat, the researchers found. Capsaicin dramatically slows growth of the fungus.

"Capsaicin doesn't stop the dispersal of seeds because birds don't sense the pain and so they continue to eat peppers, but the fungus that kills pepper seeds is quite sensitive to this chemical," said Tewksbury.

On the other hand, peppers growing in areas where there are few insects, and thus little of the fungus, didn't bother to produce much capsaicin, some being as mild as bell peppers, the researchers found.

Tewksbury also suggested in a statement that capsaicin may also benefit people who eat hot peppers - one of the earliest domesticated crops in the Americas.

"Before there was refrigeration, it was probably adaptive to eat chilies, particularly in the tropics," Tewksbury said. "Back then, if you lived in a warm and humid climate, eating could be downright dangerous because virtually everything was packed with microbes, many of them harmful. People probably added chilies to their stews because spicy stews were less likely to kill them."

Good to know. . . I had a gut ache this week that felt as though it might be some cranky microbe trying to take me down. My body fought back and I was only uncomfortable for an evening and a morning. I had some yogurt cheese that made me suspicious.

For the record, as of today I have lived two months without a refrigerator. I am finding it just isn't as big a deal as I would have ever guessed. Had I not already eliminated all kinds of things like frozen food, meat, deli food, juices, etc. ; it might have been more difficult. It had been 3 years since I had a freezer and the other foods were rarely purchases the last three years because of budget, vegetarian eating and avoiding chemical-laden processed foods. The biggest adjustment is simply not over-stocking with more food than will remain fresh.

Flickr image of hot peppers

Don't these look like Christmas lights?

1 comment:

Chile said...

I thought they were Christmas lights, Kate...

Great information. Thanks for posting about the peppers!