Food Briefs : How Hot Is Hot? A Breakthrough in the Red Pepper Heat Indicator

Times Staff Writer

Determining just how hot a hot pepper is has befuddled food companies for years. Methods that have attempted to calculate strength based on size, water content or even color have all fizzled.

Recently, McCormick & Co. of Hunt Valley, Md., announced a breakthrough in its development of a heat indicator for red peppers, according to the American Chemical Society. The research, conducted by the company’s chemists, now allows the spice firm to more reliably inform their clients how much punch is in the pepper. The process is also a more accurate gauge of the fresh, unprocessed pepper’s strength--an important factor that determines the price paid to growers because hotter peppers bring higher prices.

McCormick’s work focuses on the three chemicals that create the sometimes blistering hot flavors: capsaicin, nordihydrocapsaicin and dihydrocapsaicin. The process involves isolating the three chemicals from the pepper to be tested, calculates the strength of each present in the vegetable and then totals the amount for the final heat quotient.

The company studied 60 different types of red peppers in order to develop its successful formula. One of the more interesting aspects of the research was that 10 professional taste testers were employed--these individuals performed an act of bravery exceeding even those hearty souls that judge chili cooking contests.


There were a few byproducts of this hot search worth mentioning.

“We found that red and black pepper burn the sides and the top of your tongue, while ginger will burn the back of your mouth and throat,” said Harry Lawless, a pepper researcher. “All the burns are most severe for the first 10 minutes, then they start to cool off.”

If the occasion should arise when a red pepper substance creates a fire on the palate then Lawless recommends drinking cold, whole milk. It is more effective than water, salt, crackers or anything else, he said.

Veal’s Honor Code--A novel approach to restricting the use of antibiotics in the livestock industry is about to celebrate the completion of its first year in operation.


This particular enforcement program is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and simply lets veal calf producers sign a statement certifying that they do not use antibiotics on their calves. Then the agency greatly diminishes the chance that further scrutiny or testing will be conducted on animals sold by those who have signed the pledge.

There has been concern in scientific quarters for years over use of antibiotics on cattle and poultry. The theory holds that meat-producing animals fed the drugs as growth enhancers may eventually produce bacteria immune to the drugs. This bacteria may later prove untreatable if transferred to humans.

Veal producers apparently are more likely to administer antibiotics because of the need to keep the calves healthy during the short period between birth and when the animals are brought to market. Since implementation of the voluntary certification program, antibiotic residues in calves have declined by 50%, the agency reports.

Those producers that sign the honor code to keep their animals drug-free are still subject to random checks for use of antibiotics at the nation’s 150 plants that slaughter veal. If drug residues are found, then producers are subject to criminal charges.


Those veal-producing companies that do not sign the certifications are kept under closer watch than their pledge-signing competitors. The USDA states, however, that only one complaint has been filed against a pledge-signer since the program’s inception a year ago.

Papaya’s Hot Water--The Hawaiian papaya industry was hit hard by the government’s decision to ban the used of the fumigant ethylene dibromide, or EDB, when the chemical was found to be a strong carcinogen. Prior to the ban, the papaya growers used EDB to make sure fruit sent to the mainland was free from fruit flies that could wreak havoc on California crops.

So, last fall one papaya shipper, Amfac Tropic Products, began using a hot water spray on the fruit in order to prevent the possible spread of insects. One problem with the spray was it tended to make the fruit hard and inedible.

I. Rawdin, a Times reader from San Diego, wrote the company complaining of a bad experience with hard papaya. The firm responded that the process had since been altered.


“I am happy to report that these difficulties have been overcome through a slight modification of the procedure and the Amfac papayas are now equal to or better than they were when we were using a chemical treatment,” wrote Charles Wallis, Amfac’s sales director.

The key to correctly ripening a papaya is to keep it in a warm spot until the fruit is completely yellow and slightly soft to the touch, according to Wallis.

However, it’s also a good idea not to rinse papayas in warm water when washing them.

Who’s to Eat?--In developing countries where famine is not necessarily a crisis, but food shortages occasionally arise, there is often the question of who is to go without food--men or women. The common perception is to provide most of the available food to men because they carry a heavier workload than women.


In a recently published study called “Women--a World Survey,” there is information indicating that men in these countries are the ones with the easier work schedule and thus not as in need of nourishment as their female counterparts.

” . . . In most developing countries women work longer hours than men and frequently carry triple workloads: In their homes, in the labor force and in their reproductive roles,” Ruth Leger, the study’s author, writes. “Rural women frequently average a 118-hour week and suffer nutritional anemia, an affliction that affects half the women of childbearing age in developing countries, compared with less than 7% of those in developed countries.”