The capsicum family of peppers includes chilies and sweet peppers, but not the plants that produce peppercorns. Capsicums belong to the Solanaceae, or nightshade family, the botanical genus that includes tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco and eggplant. Capsicums contain a compound called capsaicin, each variety classified by the amount of this compound that it contains. The plants have a long history of medicinal and culinary use.
Of the hundreds of members of the capsicum family, Capsicum annuum L. and Capsicum frutescens L. are the two species most usually referred to as capsicum peppers. The fruits of Capsicum annuum include bell peppers, Tuscan or sweet Italian peppers, jalapeños and serranos. They vary greatly in size, color and pungency, depending on the cultivar. The fruits of Capsicum frutescens are invariably quite hot and include the piri-piri pepper, the bird's eye or Thai pepper and the peppers used to make Tabasco. Other familiar peppers, such as habanero and Scotch bonnets, are members of the Capsicum chinense species.
The heat of capsicum peppers and their derivative condiments is measured in Scoville heat units. William Scoville developed the test, which measures the amount of capsaicin in the peppers, in 1912. The test is somewhat subjective, as it relies on human testers to report whether they could detect the pepper's heat in increasingly diluted solutions of sugar water. The higher the Scoville number, the more diluted the pepper extract must be to be undetected by the testers. Thus, bell peppers, which contain almost no capsaicin, have a Scoville rating of zero, while habaneros, with their high concentration of capsaicin, have a Scoville rating of 300,000 or higher. The Red Savina Habanero was the world's hottest pepper until 1997, when a Naga Jolokia pepper was measured at more than 1 million Scoville units.
Both hot and sweet peppers are used in the cuisines of many countries, but various national or regional cuisines tend to rely on one or two types of peppers. Bell peppers are a key component of Creole and Cajun cooking. Piri-piri peppers are widely used in African and Portuguese cuisine. Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisines are known for their use of jalapeño, habanero and serrano peppers. Indian cooking incorporates bhut jolokia. Thai cookery often uses bird's eye chilies.
Capsicum peppers have a long tradition of use in various medical traditions. Of special note is the use of cayenne pepper. Preparations of cayenne may be applied topically to relieve psoriasis, cluster headaches, arthritis or neuralgia. Capsaicin is also being investigated for possible use as a treatment for circulatory problems as well as an aid to weight loss and obesity control.
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