The Healthy Chilli
Australians seem to like to grow chillies for their heat. It is a measure of your inner strength as to how hot a chilli you can eat. I feel that this is a doing an injustice to this intriguing plant. They are a main ingredient in so many cuisines around the worl and have been cultivated for 5000+ years and over 500 in the ‘western’ world. Over this time much breeding, selection and research has been done on this fascinating group of plants.
Chillies and Capsicums are the same genus the main difference being that Capsicums don’t have any of the heat producing compound; capsaicin. There are also many species of ‘chilli’ that have none, low or high levels of capsaicin depending on where they are from. In the words of the great Julius Sumner Miller; “why is this so?”
Although many of us consider a chilli to be a vegetable it is technically a fruit. Which means it is where the seeds are produced and held whilst they ripen. It is the protection and distribution of seeds that has the greatest affect on plant evolution. When there is a range of expression of a particular gene it must have a life or death affect on the plant. The range of heat levels has given researchers the room to study and determine why capsaicin is produced.
The capsaicin is mostly present in the pith around the seeds and in the ribs on which they are held. There is little to none present in the seeds themselves and limited amounts present in the flesh of the fruit.
Capsaicin is a strong compound that damages bacteria, fungi and certain mammalian cells. A group of researchers compared the levels of capsaicin (chilli heat) with the climatic conditions where the species is endemic to. Their research showed that the more humid the climate the greater the amount of capsaicin present. Another observation was that in the drier areas the pith surrounding the seed was substantially thicker with little capsaicin present.
The fruit holds the seed, helps to distribute it and to provide nourishment for the young seedlings. Each has a different level of importance based on the needs of the plant. Based on the above it became apparent that the production of capsaicin was an evolutionary protection against fungal diseases. The chemical is highly antagonistic to the types of fungi found in the South American rainforests.
Capsaicin also aggravates certain receptors in mammals but not in birds. This has great benefit as it reduced the chances of the fruit being eaten by local mammals that did not move great distances from the parent plant. However the local birds ate the fruit and then dropped the seed some distance from the parents.
The use of chillies in western cooking has been primarily as a source of ‘heat’ with many an Australian boasting about how hot they can their chillies. However with a plant as old as this it is generally the health and dietary benefits that makes it so popular. Chillies (including Capsicums) are very high in Vitamins C and A, moderate levels of several of the B vitamins and small amounts of Vitamin E.
Chillies also have positive affects on the human body. The ‘heat’ of the chilli causes the body to perspire and open the pores on the skin which helps cool the body and also remove toxins from the blood stream. Capsaicin affects the walls of the blood vessels enabling them to stretch more and thus reduce blood pressure.
There is a wealth of anecdotal evidence of other benefits including: reduced blood sugar levels, cholesterol reduction, improved circulation and numerous other benefits. It is also thought that the antifungal properties of capsaicin helped in the preservation of cooked foods prior to the invention of synthetic preservatives. There is also some evidence that the ‘heat’ compounds have a negative affect on many common cancer cells. It seems it attacks the physiology of the cancer cells without damaging the healthy ones.
As a commercial crop many varieties return quite high dollar values per plant. A mature Bhut Jolokai bush will produce around 1000 fruit per year. These fruit can attain as much as 50c per unit making this a very profitable plant to grow. Currently most sellers of fruit and vegetables fail to differentiate any more than ‘hot’, ‘medium’ or ‘mild’ forms. Like most green produce there are numerous varieties and cultivars available. Hopefully it is not too long before they start to sell chillies by variety.
This is an opportunity for nurseries to gain customers. Many of the community would like to be able to select varieties so they are likely to buy the plants and grow their own. At the same time if we are to promote the health benefits of chillies as well as just the heat content we are likely to further increase the demand for them. So for summer 2011 lets have a broad range of chillies in the market place. We should be able to have at least 40 varieties available in the garden centers.