It may be time to get out the dictionary to see what designates an herb. The International Herb Association (IHA) has chosen the pepper family known as capsicum as 2016’s Herb of the Year. The prize, which is awarded annually as a part of National Herb Week, shines a spotlight on this often misunderstood fruit; declaring it outstanding for its virtually unlimited culinary, medicinal and decorative uses.
What is capsicum exactly?
Capsicum, also known as peppers, is a genus of flowering plants in the nightshade family (which includes tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants.) Native to South America, its many species have been cultivated and traded for more than 6,000 years. According to experts at the Chile Pepper Institute, there are literally thousands of varieties, ranging from fiery hot to mild tasting, with new ones constantly being discovered. And among the known varieties, the fruits go by different names, depending on the type and location in which they are grown.
The mild tasting bell pepper is sometimes referred to as ‘Stoplight Pepper’
Sound confusing? Capsicum terminology can get rather complicated, since pepper, chili, aji, paprika and capsicum are all used interchangeably to describe the same genus. Add to that the fact that frequent cross-pollination among domesticated species has produced even more variations and classification becomes next to impossible. Despite the huge range of varieties, however, experts now widely agree that the genus capsicum consists of 5 domesticated species:
Capsicum annuum: The most common and extensively grown of the five domesticated capsicums, C. annuum includes the bell pepper, jalapeño, pimiento, piquin and cayenne among others.
Capsicum baccatum: Ají amarillo, also called amarillo chili and ají escabeche.
Aji Amarillo pepper
Capsicum chinense: Includes some of the world’s hottest peppers like the habanero, scotch bonnet and red savina. Pods and plant types vary within the species.
Capsicum frutescens: This shrubby cultivar that includes the tabasco is often considered part of the species Capsicum annuum. Fruits typically grow erect and are very small, maturing from yellow to bright red. Large clusters of berries make this a popular ornamental plant.
Capsicum pubescens: The least common of the five, a cultivar distinguished by its apple-like shape and black seeds. It includes the varieties rocoto and the Mexican manzano.
Peruvian rocoto pepper
A part of cooking for thousands of years
Although chili peppers had been a part of the human diet across the Americas for centuries, they were virtually unheard of in the rest of the world. That is, until Christopher Columbus brought the unusual species back from the New World. At the time, the fruit of a plant native to India, called Piper nigrum, (commonly known as peppercorn) was the key ingredient used to flavor foods in countries like Europe.
Peppercorn, Piper nigrum
In the beginning, Europeans weren’t so enamored with capsicum. But eventually, as traders began carrying the berry to places in West Africa, India and Asia, the pungent fruit quickly caught on. In the end, capsicum’s discovery would end up revolutionizing cooking the world over as it became an integral ingredient in Chinese, Indian, Thai, European and American cooking and medicine, all of which now lay claim to the spice as their own.
Anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties
The same chemical that produces a pepper’s fiery sensation in the mouth is loaded with medicinal properties. This is due to a phytonutrient called capsaicin, a chemical that gives hot peppers their ‘heat.’ In the wild, capsaicin protects the fruits from being eaten by insects and other mammals. In modern medicine, the pepper compound has been successfully used to dramatically reduce the sensation of pain.
The amount of capsaicin in any one fruit is highly variable depending on genetics and environment. (All chili peppers have some degree of the chemical, though, with the notable exception of bell peppers, which have practically none.) Habanero peppers are among the most capsaicin-rich chilies that are commonly available. A 2006 study published in the “Journal of Environmental Science and Health” found that the species habanero (a part of C. chinense) had higher concentrations of capsaicin than any other species in the capsicum genus.
When a capsaicin cream or ointment is applied to the skin, it has anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. Capsaicin medications have been shown to successfully relieve pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and shingles. In 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a medicated skin patch made from capsaicin for treatment of post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). According to spokesmen, the pure, concentrated, capsaicin-containing prescription drug was the first to undergo FDA review
“This new product can provide effective pain relief for patients who suffer from PHN,” said Bob Rappaport, M.D., director of the Division of Anesthesia, Analgesia and Rheumatology Products in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.
And just last year, the capsaicin patch was approved for use in the Europe Union for the additional indication of the treatment of adult diabetes patients with peripheral neuropathic pain.
Other studies have shown that pepper fruits can be used to make medicine for problems relating to digestion including upset stomach, intestinal gas and cramps as well as conditions such as poor circulation. Capsaicin has also been used to relieve toothaches and seasickness and a form of the phytonutrient is currently being studied as a remedy for migraine pain.
World’s hottest chili pepper identified
Recently, the world’s hottest chili pepper was identified. Known as the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, the golf-ball sized fruit was named the spiciest pepper on the planet. On the Scoville Heat Scale (which measures the pungency, or heat factor, of peppers), the Trinidad Moruga scored about 240 times hotter than the jalapeño, with a Scoville heat unit value of 1.2 million. (The average jalapeño ranks at about 5,000 units.)
Moruga Scorpion pepper
Pure capsaicin, by the way, has a heat unit value ranging between 15,000,000 and 16,000,000 Scoville Units.
For more information on capsicum and where many of the known varieties rank on the Heat Scale, check out Uncle Steve’s Hot Stuff.