The Science of Chile – From the Chile Chica, Kelly Urig

Read on to learn a little bit o’ science about our state vegetable

Native Santa Fean, author, and award-winning documentary filmmaker “Chile Chica” Kelly Brinn Urig, knows a thing or two about chiles, and she wants to give you the inside scoop about their role in New Mexico’s history, heritage, culture, and of course, cuisine. Her new book, New Mexico Chiles: History, Legend And Lore, explores four centuries of chile agriculture in New Mexico.

Here’s en excerpt from the chapter entitled “Science of Chile” to give you a little taste:

Science of Chile

When you look at the history of chiles and their evolution, it really isn’t too surprising that they have become so popular. Studies conducted in the past couple of years have shown that people who eat chiles are more likely to be “risk takers.” Chile eating can also help with weight loss, lower blood pressure and even lead to greater team bonding. Chile peppers are cholesterol free, low in sodium and calories and rich in vitamins A and C (one fresh green chile contains more vitamin C than three oranges, and a red chile pod packs more vitamin A than a carrot). They are a good source of folic acid, potassium and vitamin E. Not everyone enjoys eating chiles despite the health benefits, as the spicy factor scares some away. So why are some people hooked on chiles?

Humans enjoy a thrill. We love going to haunted houses and scary movies, riding roller coasters and being frightened for the sake of it, knowing that we will not experience any physical harm. Eating chiles is similar. Most of us know that we will experience some sort of heat when we eat chiles—for many people this is painful and the reason they stay away from anything spicy—but for chile consumers, it is the high that keeps us coming back for more.

When we consume chiles, capsaicinoids (molecules that create heat in peppers) connect to the TRPV1 pain/heat receptors found in our mouths. The receptors send a chemical messenger, “Substance P,” to our brains that we are on fire and in pain. To block the perceived pain, our brains trigger a release of endorphins from the pituitary and hypothalamus glands. This is the fire department response system in our brains; instead of using water to squash out the heat, our brains send a wave of elating endorphins. The influx of endorphins to the pituitary gland is why most people sweat when eating chile. The release creates a sense of well-being.

The high of endorphins counteracts our perceived experience of pain. With increased frequency of progressively hotter chiles, our bodies develop a pain tolerance, explaining why some chile fanatics will suffer through the pain to reach that oh-so-good endorphin release.

Capsaicin has many common uses other than giving chile heads a high. It’s used as a topical analgesic agent (sore muscle cream) in the treatment of arthritis, shingles, nerve damage and migraines. Mayans even used to spread chile powder on their gums to ease the pain of toothaches. Oleoresin, the natural resin found in red chile pods, is used to color a variety of cosmetics like red lipstick, as well as a number of colored food products.

Chile Chica Pro Tip: If you are not a fan of spicy foods and you happen to experience an adverse reaction to some spicy chile, do not drink water. Take it from someone who won second place at the Hatch Chile Festival green chile– eating contest, where, after eating twelve extremely hot XX Lumbre chiles, I downed a bottle of water, which only spread the capsaicin oil like wildfire. Holy inferno! It felt like I had poured lava into my intestines. Milk, on the other hand, or any dairy product that contains casein (a fat- loving protein), easily binds to the oily capsaicin and will help wash it down with minimal pain.

While there are many enjoyable uses for chiles today, itis reassuring to know the peppers are not actually addictive. It’s the high of endorphins to which people perceive they are addicted, very similar to a “runner’shigh.” Chiles are by far one of the safest “addictions” to have.They are packed full of healthy vitamins and have no lingering side effects. Ask any chile aficionado - like myself—if chile withdrawal is a real thing, and the answer will be yes. I always keep a shaker of dried red chile in my purse, as well as some sort of hot sauce. You never know when those chile cravings are going to rear their ugly heads. Better to be safe than sorry. 

Want to know more? You’ll have to read the book! Click here. . .

Kelly Urig is an award-winning filmmaker and native New Mexican with a passion for food and it’s cultural, economic and historic importance. She earned her bachelor of arts degree from the University of Denver and received her master’s of arts in television, film and media production from San Diego State University. Kelly is a native of Santa Fe and credits the unique culture and people of the state for her storytelling perspective.