The Heat You Can Eat
Good Organic Gardening|September - October 2021
No chilli lover is happy until their tongue is stung and their eyes are watering
Chloe Thomson

Some like it hot — do you? If you eat chilli every day, then you’re not alone; one quarter of the world’s population eat chilli at least once a day.

Despite its current world domination, until 1492 chilli wasn’t grown or eaten outside of Central and South America, where there is evidence of its cultivation and consumption for 8000-plus years.

It’s thanks to Christopher Columbus’ spice-seeking travels and adventurous Portuguese traders that chillies spread around the world and the global obsession with this fiery fruit began.

The compound in chillies that gives them their burn is capsaicin which, when ingested, triggers pain receptors in our body, alerting it to a dangerous physical heat. It’s the same mechanism that helps us know to drop a hot pan if we hold onto it.

But why oh why then do we put ourselves through the painful heat experience of eating chillies? Unlike the experience of holding a scalding hot pan in your bare hands, eating a hot chilli doesn’t actually cause any tissue damage (although those who’ve ever been brave enough to try a Carolina Reaper might argue differently) — it’s simply the brain being tricked by pain receptors into thinking one’s tongue is actually on fire.

Perhaps even more bizarre is the fact that many people find themselves somewhat addicted to chillies and their potent burn, so much so they’ll push themselves to eat hotter and hotter chillies for a thrill.

While I wouldn’t say I’m addicted, I do enjoy the warming hum of eating chillies — as long as they’re not so hot that they numb my mouth completely.

The heat of chillies is measured on the Scoville scale, invented by Wilbur Scoville in 1912 to rank chillies by the amount of capsaicin in them. The hottest chillies in the world, including ‘Carolina Reaper’ and the ‘Trinidad Scorpion’, have around 1.5–2.0 million Scoville Heat Units (but who’s counting?) while milder and sweeter varieties like Poblano and Jalapeño have around 1000 to 2000 SHU.

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