Chilli pepper - food

Chilli peppers (not to be confused with black pepper) are widely used as a condiment and vegetable all over the world. The fruits are consumed fresh, dried or processed as a spice. Colour and flavour extracts are used in both the food and feed industry, for example for ginger beer, hot sauces and poultry feed.

Types of chilli pepper

A photograph of a large sack of dried chilli pepper fruits on sale in a market.
Image: These dried chilli pepper fruits are for sale at the Devaraja market in Mysore.

Though chilli peppers are famous for their 'hot' flavour, there are many different cultivated types each with distinct characteristics. Chilli peppers have been breed with different levels of the pungent compound capsaicin in them. This can vary from type to type, so some are much hotter than others.

Mild and sweet bell peppers are cultivars of the species Capsicum annuum. They do not contain capsaicin. Mild and pungent paprika is made using these fruits. At the other end of the scale, Cayenne pepper is fiery hot. It is the ground seeds from cultivars of Capsicum frutescens.

Chilli pepper is thought to be the most popular spice with over 20% of the worlds' population using it in some form. It can be eaten fresh, or dried, in powdered or crushed form. In South Asia it is ground or chopped and added to spice mixtures and dishes where it adds a hot flavour.

The use of chilli peppers in food was initially associated with hot countries because after eating food containing chilli peppers people feel cooler. This is because it induces perspiration that results in a loss of body heat. It can also suppress the appetite but not thirst. So people eat less but continue to drink water.

In South Asia families will often make their own very potent oils from chilli seeds. These oils are very hot and rarely sold abroad. Chilli pepper fruits are also used to make extracts that can be used to add the spicy flavour to ginger beer and vodka.

How hot?

The hotness of a chili pepper is measured in Scoville Heat Units, named after the US pharmacist Wilbur Scoville. In 1912 he invented a test to measure how hot chilies could be. On the Scoville scale, a sweet pepper scores 0, a jalapeño pepper around 3000 and a Mexican habañero a scorching 500,000.

In September 2000 Indian scientists claimed that the hottest chilli in the world is grown in the northeastern hills of Assam. A variety called 'Naga Jolokia' tested 855,000 Units. The 'Naga Jolokia' is said to be a cultivar of Capsicum frutescens, while the habañero is a cultivar of Capsicum chinense. But experts have since questioned testing methods by the Indian scientists and these results have been disputed.