Why Are Chillies Hot

By Anupum Pant

We’ve had chillies for more than 6000 years. Over time, by using clever growing techniques people have come up with chillies that are absurdly hot. While others like bell peppers are not hot at all. Capsaicin is the chemical that is present in chillies which makes them feel hot and we found that out only recently (as compared to its 6000 year history).

Capsaicin in theory is actually a neurotoxin which is inherently unpleasant to humans. Most of us who’ve tried quelling the heat from a pepper using water know that Capsaicin doesn’t dissolve in water. On the other hand, it readily dissolves in fats and oils. That is the reason, a traditional remedy to quelling the heat from a pepper is by washing it off using milk, yogurt or cream.

The hottest parts of a chilli is neither its skin nor the seeds. It is the central white flesh to which seeds are attached. When humans, or for that matter, any mammal eats a chilli, their bodies are able to digest the seeds and it doesn’t really serve any purpose for the chilli plant. So, to keep humans and mammals at bay, they are believed to have evolved to produce capsaicin.

Even the hottest chillies produced using clever growing techniques have taken this defensive response of a chilli plant to encourage it to make more capsaicin.

But there’s more. The hotter a chilli is, the better are its defences against harmful fungus and bacteria. So, capsaicin helps chilli plants to deal with, not just mammals, but also fungus and bacteria.

Parrots and other birds however aren’t bothered by capsaicin. Birds also aren’t able to digest the seeds and spread the chilli seeds all around through their droppings. And this serves a great purpose for the parent plant.

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