By Maryann Readal
Hot! Hot! HOT! – but not the hottest! Cayenne pepper, Capsicum annuum, is hot, but it reaches only 30,000 – 50,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU) on the Scoville Heat Scale. For comparison, the ‘Carolina Reaper’ pepper reaches 1.4M – 2.2M SHU, and the jalapeño pepper just a meager 2,500-8,000 SHU. The Scoville Scale was developed by pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in 1912 to determine heat levels based on subjective sensitivity to capsaicinoids in peppers. Although modern lab methods are used today to determine the heat level of peppers, the Scoville Scale is still the common way to classify pepper heat intensity (Mountain Rose Herbs, 2021).
Cayenne pepper, a member of the Solanaceae, or nightshade, family, is native to tropical North and South America. The term “cayenne pepper” can generically refer to any of a number of peppers within the Capsicum annuum Cayenne Group, which is characterized by being long (about two to five inches long, and about a half-inch in diameter), tapered, and with a curved tip. The fruits are usually red, and grow hanging from the plant instead of upright. It is easy to grow as a perennial in USDA zones 9-11, and as an annual in other parts of the country. It prefers full sun and soil that is moist, fertile, and well-draining. Because of its colorful fruit, some varieties of cayenne pepper can make interesting container plants. It is usually dried and sold as a powder. Cayenne pepper is named after a city and river in French Guiana, where it grows abundantly. New Mexico leads in the commercial production of the cayenne peppers used in hot sauces (Bosland, 2010).
Some say that Capsicum annuum is the oldest domesticated plant. Archaeological research suggests that Capsicum annuum was first domesticated in Mexico and northern Central America. Remains of chile peppers have been found in archaeological sites dating 8,000 years before our present time. Archaeologists speculate that the early use of Capsicum annuum was to spice up the bland diets of roots, tubers, maize, and beans of Indigenous peoples. However, artwork and early written works of Indigenous peoples indicate that Capsicum annuum had medicinal and ritualistic uses as well. The Mayans used peppers to treat asthma, coughs, and sore throats, while the Aztecs used chiles to relieve toothaches. The ethnobotanist Dr. Richard Schultes documented many interesting, current uses of Capsicum among modern Amazonian peoples during his 50 years of study of Indigenous peoples of South America. (See HSA blog article “Who Was That Guy?” for a general overview of Dr. Shultes).
Portuguese explorers brought the hot peppers to Europe in the late 15th century, reducing the demand for black pepper, Piper nigrum (Russo, 2013). Once in Europe, Capsicum annuum spread across the continents, where it was readily integrated into local cuisines to the point that people considered it a native of their own country. A survey of a grocery store’s hot sauce section demonstrates the popularity and variety of hot sauces of many different cuisines. To some, especially in the South, hot sauce is a “must-have” accompaniment for all meals, lending humor and insight to the quote “Spicy food lovers are pyro-gourmaniacs” (author unknown).
Capsaicin is the compound responsible for the fiery heat sensation of cayenne peppers and is found in the membrane surrounding the seeds. Because of the heat sensation it produces, capsaicin has been effectively used for topical relief of arthritis and nerve pain. When applied to the skin, capsaicin affects the amount of substance P released, which is a neuropeptide involved in the perception of pain (Bosland, 1996), although some say that the burning sensation from capsaicin merely helps one to forget the source of the pain. Cayenne’s medicinal benefits are still being investigated today. USDA Agricultural Research Service scientists have found that a component in the cayenne pepper kills fungi and yeast in crops and humans (Suszkiw, 2001).
An interesting study done in 2017 showed that eating foods containing cayenne pepper “resulted in significantly higher satiation at the end of the meal and one hour post intake. Further, adding cayenne pepper was associated with subjects feeling significantly more energetic and overall satisfied one hour post intake. During intake of [a] soup with added cayenne pepper, desire for salty and spicy foods were significantly decreased and desire for sweet and fatty foods were significantly increased.” The study concluded that cayenne pepper could be used to influence eating habits (Anderson, 2017). This conclusion echoes some of the traditional reported medicinal benefits of cayenne: that it is good for cardiovascular health, increasing weight loss, and stimulating the appetite.
For more information about cayenne pepper, please see The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpage, https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-of-the-month.html
Photo credits: 1) Variety of peppers in Cap. Central Market, TX (public domain); 2) Cayenne pepper (Wikimedia Commons); 3) Cayenne hot pepper display (Maryann Readal)
Anderson, B.V. 2017. Cayenne pepper in a meal: Effect on oral heat on feelings of appetite, sensory specific desires and well-being. Food Quality and Preference. Vol. 18. Accessed 7/17/21 via EBSCOhost.
Bosland, Paul. 2010. Nu-Mex Las Cruces Cayenne pepper. HortScience, 45 (11). Accessed 7/19/21. https://eprints.nwisrl.ars.usda.gov/id/eprint/1421/1/1391.pdf
Bosland, Paul. 1996. Capsicums: Innovative uses of an ancient crop. Accessed 9/14/21. https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/proceedings1996/V3-479.html
DeWitt, Dave. 1999. The chili pepper encyclopedia. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.
Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder. Capsicum annuum. http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=287148&isprofile=1&basic=capsicum%20annuum Accessed 7/18/21.
Mountain Rose Herbs. 2021. Cayenne. Accessed 7/19/21. https://mountainroseherbs.com/cayenne-powder
Russo, Vincent, ed. 2012. Peppers, botany, production and uses. CAB International, Cambridge, MA.
Suszkiw, Jan. 2001. Peppers put the “heat” on pests. USDA Agricultural Research Service. Accessed 7/19/21. https://www.ars.usda.gov/news-events/news/research-news/2001/peppers-put-the-147heat148-on-pests/
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.