Eating spicy food is a lot like running a marathon. They both hurt while you’re doing them, and the next day can be pretty painful, too. You have to fight the urge to quit. Crying is par for the course. Yet you persevere, all the while knowing that you’re going to sign up for the same suffering again in the future.
The world is cuckoo for chilis. Restaurants compete to have the spiciest wings, hottest chili, and most tear-inducing sushi. Competitors on television shows and YouTube series sear the inside of their mouths for our viewing pleasure. Self-proclaimed pepper-heads are always working to bring hotter and hotter peppers to market. In fact, the most tongue-blistering varieties we have now—ones with ominous names like the Carolina Reaper and Trinidad Scorpion—didn’t evolve naturally. They are the result of systematic crossbreeding designed to create chilis so packed with heat that only the bravest (or most foolhardy, depending on your point of view) would dare try them.
Eating spicy foods satisfies the deeply ingrained human need to test our limits and see how much discomfort we can take. That’s not the only reason we’re drawn to spicy foods, though. The pain they cause seems to stimulate the release of endorphins, part of the body’s endogenous opioid system, which accounts for why spicy foods “hurt so good” instead of just plain hurting.1 Capsaicin, the chemical in hot peppers that imparts the characteristic burning sensation, is anti-inflammatory and has numerous health benefits.23
Can you feel the burn?
Chili, Pepper, Chili Pepper: What’s the Difference?
Sometimes the English language is unnecessarily confusing. This is one of those times.
Chilis all belong to the genus Capsicum, while peppers are a separate plant belonging to the genus Piper. The black pepper and white pepper on your spice rack are Pipers. However, the cayenne pepper and red pepper flakes next to them are Capsicums, as are bell peppers and all the fruits (yes, fruits) we lump into the category of “chili peppers.” Also, chili, chile, and chilli are all acceptable spellings for members of the Capsicum genus depending on where you live.
Confused yet? Sorry about that, but don’t fret. The difference only matters if you’re a botanist or you’ve been cornered by an incredibly pedantic foodie at a party. For common usage, feel free to use the terms chili (chile), pepper, and chili pepper interchangeably.
What is the Scoville Scale?
The Scoville Scale describes how hot a given pepper is using a unit of measure called Scoville Heat Units, or SHU.
In the original method for rating peppers, developed by the eponymous pharmacist and researcher Wilbur Scoville, a panel of tasters judge the heat level of different peppers. Today, food scientists employ high-performance liquid chromatography to measure how many capsaicinoid compounds a pepper contains, but human tasters still provide subjective ratings and validate the results.
Bell peppers rate a 0 on the scale. There is no upper limit. Currently, the hottest known pepper on the planet, the mysterious sounding Pepper X, claims to clock in at more than three million SHU. That would make it 600 times hotter than the average jalapeño!
Hot Pepper Safety
Capsaicin is an oily substance that can burn your skin and mucous membranes if you aren’t careful. The best way to avoid chili burns is:
Always wear gloves when cutting hot peppers.
Never touch your eyes when cooking with chilis.
Wash your hands with dish soap immediately after handling hot peppers.
Be careful not to inhale dried and ground (powdered) chili peppers. Chefs who work with the chilis at the top of the Scoville scale will even wear respirators!
If you forget the gloves and your hands feel like they are on fire, try washing them with rubbing alcohol, vodka, vinegar, baking soda, and/or dish soap. Each of these substances can neutralize and wash away the capsaicin.
The casein in dairy products can help, too. Drinking milk or eating yogurt will ease the pain in your mouth. You can also dunk your burning hands in milk if washing them hasn’t helped. However, should you be so unlucky as to touch your eyes with chili hands, the only solution is to flush them thoroughly with water.
Ultimately, though, the best course of action is prevention. Once you’ve burned yourself, these remedies are only going to provide moderate relief. You’ll still have to live with the pain for a while.
10 Types of Chili Peppers You Should Know
Variety is the spice of life. When it comes to culinary delight, one of the most fun—and potentially most painful ways—to mix it up in the kitchen is by experimenting with the spice level of your food. Here are some chilis you might want to try.
1. Jalapeño Peppers
Also known as:
Chipotle pepper (when smoked and dried), chile gordo (“fat chili”)
How hot are jalapeño peppers?
2,500 – 8,000 SHU
Native to Mexico
Used in a wide variety of Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes
Not very spicy as chili peppers go, but enough to bring some heat
Smooth-skinned fruit that grows 2 to 6 inches in length
Generally eaten while green, but you can let them continue to ripen on the plant until they are red
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.