What makes hot sauce hot?

     Capsaicin is the active chemical compound that makes chili peppers “hot”. It is the plants natural adaptation for deterring plant eating animals. Capsaicin will irritate any part of the human body that it comes into contact with. Different chili peppers contain varying amounts of capsaicin (see Scoville heat scale). Capsaicin is mostly found inside the core of the pepper pod as well as on the external skin. It is therefore essential that latex or rubber gloves are worn not only when cooking with very hot peppers but also when harvesting and handling them. The chemical compound can produce a waxy
appearance on the outside of the pepper pod.

     If you find yourself in a situation in which you are experiencing the physiological effects of capsaicin overload, it is best to either consume dairy products such as milk or hard alcohol. The compounds found in milk block capsaicin receptor sites in the mouth while alcohol is effective in dissipating the capsaicin compound so that it can be swallowed. Drinking water will often spread the irritation, so try to avoid it.

     Capsaicin that gets on your skin will not degenerate significantly from washing with soap and water. I often use rubbing alcohol when I find that my hands are burning because of an accidental transfer of capsaicin. I would not recommend this for everyone, since some people with sensitive skin may have a negative reaction to rubbing alcohol.

     If you are one of those people who just can’t handle spicy food but wish you had more of a tolerance, try to slowly build a tolerance by consuming peppers with low grade heat, then gradually move up the scale (see Scoville Heat scale).

     Believe it or not, genetics, ancestry and cultural histories play a large part in determining whether or not someone may or may not have a tolerance to spicy food. Generally, Central and South Americans as well as people from India and North Africa have a higher tolerance for spicy food than Western and Eastern Europeans.

     Lastly, I would like to address the issue of ingesting large quantities of capsaicin. A good rule of thumb is: “Whatever burns on the way in, will burn on the way out”. This is because the mucus membranes and soft tissue that line your mouth are very similar to those found in your rectum. I know it is not the most appetizing thing to think about, but it is worth mentioning. I have personally noticed that consuming a bite of a fresh pepper (even a habanero or dare I say a Naga Jolokia (Indian Ghost Pepper >1,000,000 Scoville Units)) produces less discomfort than some processed artificially flavored hot sauce that contains synthetically altered or concentrated capsaicin. Also, take into account that the Scoville heat scale, as groundbreaking and informative as it is, is not an absolute. I have had roasted jalapeno peppers that were hotter than roasted cayenne peppers. I have also consumed cayenne peppers off the vine that were hotter than fresh habanero peppers.