Dead center of the overlapping region sits the tomato. So, why is it a fruit, and why is it a vegetable?
Botanically speaking, a fruit is a seed-bearing structure that develops from the ovary of a flowering plant, whereas vegetables are all other plant parts, such as roots, leaves and stems. By those standards, seedy outgrowths such as apples, squash and, yes, tomatoes are all fruits, while roots such as beets, potatoes and turnips, leaves such as spinach, kale and lettuce, and stems such as celery and broccoli are all vegetables.
The outlook is quite different in culinary terms, however. A lot of foods that are (botanically speaking) fruits, but which are savory rather than sweet, are typically considered vegetables by chefs. This includes such botanical fruits as eggplants, bell peppers and tomatoes.
Fruit vs. vegetable Venn diagram (Image credit: Public domain)
The fruit vs. vegetable debate can sometimes reach such a fever pitch that the law must step in. In the 1893 United States Supreme Court case Nix. v. Hedden, the court rule unanimously that an imported tomato should be taxed as a vegetable, rather than as a (less taxed) fruit. The court acknowledged that a tomato is a botanical fruit, but went with what they called the “ordinary” definitions of fruit and vegetable — the ones used in the kitchen.
Original article on Live Science.
- Male And Female Peppers: Fact Or Fiction?
- A plant world sex scandal…
- Is the male and female peppers claim fact or fiction?
- The bell pepper gender theory
- The lobe fallicy – What does the number of lobes actually indicate in a bell pepper?
- Do four-lobe bell peppers have more seeds?
- Are these “female peppers” sweeter?
- So is there anything interesting about gender in relation to bell peppers?
- No, bell peppers don’t have a gender
- Sweetness Level
- Pepper Anatomy: What’s Inside Your Chili?
- Capsaicin Glands
- The Taste-Test
- Carolina Reaper (USA) – 2,200,000 SHU
- Trinidad Moruga Scorpion (Trinidad and Tobago) – 2,009,231 SHU
- Trinidad Scorpion ‘Butch T’ (Trinidad and Tobago) – 1,463,700 SHU
- Naga Viper (UK) – 1,382,118 SHU
- 7 Pot Jonah (Trinidad) – 1,200,000 SHU
- Infinity Chili (England) – 1,176,182 SHU
- Bhut Jolokia (India) – 1,041,427 SHU
- Chocolate Habanero (USA) – 425,000 SHU
- Scotch Bonnet Chili (Caribbean islands) – 350,000 SHU
- Red Savina Habanero (USA) – 248,556 SHU
- Orange Habanero (Mexico) – 250,000 SHU
- Rocoto (USA) – 250,000 SHU
- Piri Piri Chili (Africa) – 175,000 SHU
- Tabasco Chili (Mexico) – 50,000 SHU
- Jalapeño Chili (Mexico) – 8,000 SHU
- Guajillo Chili (Mexico) – 5,000 SHU
- The Biochemistry of Peppers
- 1. From Haiti to Europe
- 2. Botanical Aspects of Capsicum
- 3. Culinary Matters Relative to Peppers
- The Biochemistry of Peppers – Part 2
- Are Bell Pepper Lobes An Indicator Of Pepper Plant Gender And Seed Production?
- Pepper Gender Myth
- Pepper Seeds and Taste
- Chow Line: No such thing as male and female bell peppers
Male And Female Peppers: Fact Or Fiction?
A plant world sex scandal…
Do bell peppers have a gender? Some say they do. The idea has been around for a while but only recently has it caught traction. According to the theory, there are distinct male and female peppers and the gender indicates whether a bell pepper has more seeds or whether it is better for cooking or eating raw. Interesting theory, but is it fact or fiction?
Is the male and female peppers claim fact or fiction?
Total fiction. There’s no such thing as bell pepper sexes. But let’s break the urban legend down to make things clear.
The bell pepper gender theory
The theory states that the lobes or bumps on the bottom of the fruit are the indicators of the bell pepper’s sex so that you can tell the fruit’s gender by counting them. Male bell peppers, according to the theory, have only three lobes while female bell peppers have four. These genders point to their best use case: Male bell peppers, the theory states, are better for cooking while female bell peppers are sweeter, contain more seeds, and better eaten raw.
The lobe fallicy – What does the number of lobes actually indicate in a bell pepper?
Absolutely nothing in terms of sex. Bell peppers can have anywhere between two and five lobes, not just the three or four listed in this urban legend.
The number of lobes that a bell pepper has is related to the variety of bell pepper. There are different varieties that produce different numbers of lobes. Some produce two, while others may produce between three and five lobes. The most popular variety of bell pepper in the U.S. produces four lobes so many plants have been bred for this characteristic.
Do four-lobe bell peppers have more seeds?
They may, but only because they have more lobes, meaning more cavity space in which seeds can be grown. But even this is not 100% true all the time. Peppers can have a single chamber or multiple chambers containing the white pithy tissue with the seeds. Exactly how many chambers does not always indicate the number of seeds of the bell pepper, but more lobes is a better guess if you are hunting for bell pepper seeds.
Are these “female peppers” sweeter?
Sweetness has nothing to do with the number of lobes on your pepper. It has everything to do with your cultivated variety, the soil you’ve grown your peppers in, the weather, and, especially, how long you’ve left the fruits on the vine. Bell peppers that have aged from green to their mature red will be sweeter, no matter if they have three lobes or four.
So is there anything interesting about gender in relation to bell peppers?
There is: the pepper plant creates “perfect flowers” also called hermaphroditic or unisex flowers. All plants of the nightshade family folllow suit (tomatoes, eggplants, sweet peppers, chili peppers, etc); their flowers contain both stamens and carpels – they have reproductive systems that are both male and female.
Some other types of plants have male flowers as well as female flowers. Sometimes these flowers are on the same plant and sometimes they grow on separate plants.
So the real truth here is that not only are bell peppers genderless, the flowers of the bell pepper plant themselves are – in a simplistic way – all genders. This is a pepper that breaks down all barriers.
No, bell peppers don’t have a gender
A meme on Facebook post claims that it is possible to tell whether a bell pepper is male or female by the number of bumps on the bottom of the fruit. The claim is false; bell peppers do not have a gender.
This Facebook post was published in May 2018 and has been shared 59,000 times since.
The meme’s text reads: “Flip the bell peppers over to check their gender. The ones with four bumps are female and those with three bumps are male. The female peppers are full of seeds, but sweeter and better for eating raw and the males are better for cooking. I didn’t know this!”
Below is a screenshot of the post:
Other posts with similar claims can be found on Facebook here and on Twitter here.
The long-running claim is false, as bell peppers do not have a gender.
In an August 28, 2019, email to AFP, Zhonghua Chen, associate professorat Western Sydney University’s School of Science and Health, explained why:
“Capsicums (Capsicum annuum), also called sweet peppers, have individual flowers containing both male parts (pollen-producing anthers) and female parts (stigma and ovary). This means that all capsicums are ‘fruits’ that form from the fertilisation of the ovary and the fruit itself has no ‘gender’. The fruit contains several hundred seeds which are capable of producing new plants with both male and female flower parts in the one flower.”
Chen said the number of bumps in a bell pepper has no correlation to flavour, seed production or sensory attributes of the fruit. The number of bumps may reflect natural variation in the fruit’s development and size, he added.
The number of seeds in the fruit doesn’t affect the flavour, either.
“Research into the flavour of capsicums has mostly focused on the differences between sweetness (sugar levels) and sourness (acidity). Unlike hot chilis, capsicums (sweet peppers) contain little capsaicin (the spicy compound), so their flavour is the result of volatile chemical compounds, sugars, carbohydrates and the different textures of the smooth skins and the rough softer flesh inside,” Chen said.
“The number of seeds does not affect flavour, but may reflect the plant’s vigour, the quality of pollination and even the grade of the fruits as each seed is the end result of a pollination process.”
Oregon State University has also debunked the false claim here.
Do vegetables truly have a gender? The flower, not the fruit, has the sexual organ in plants. You might notice as your bell pepper plant grows that there are little flowers before your pepper sprouting on the plant. It is impossible to determine if a fruit has a certain gender.
Bell peppers grow flowers with both male and female parts, often referred to as “perfect” flowers. Peppers are a member of the Nightshade family. Any plant that belongs to the Nightshade family, such as garden tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes, grows “perfect” flowers.
Perfect flowers contain both a male and female sexual reproductive organ – a stamen and pistil. A plant that has individual female and male flowers produce fruit with a particular gender. However, peppers don’t fall into this category! According to botanists, pepper flowers are called hermaphroditic or bisexual.
You are probably wondering how a plant could be hermaphroditic. The fruit of the pepper plants – the actual peppers – contain ovaries, which produce seeds. Each pepper is produced through a self-fertilization process.
Bell peppers come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes, typically three inches wide and four inches long. Each pepper will either have three or four lobes. There are some varieties that can have less or more lobes, but that isn’t common. If a pepper with three lobes is a male and four lobes equal a female, what is a five-lobed pepper?
If you follow along with the myth, a bell pepper with four lobes would have more seeds and taste much sweeter than its three lobe counterpart. The most important thing to remember is that this myth is totally inaccurate! The number of lobes – or lack thereof – doesn’t indicate its taste.
The environment where the pepper grows is the best indicator of its sweetness. Clearly, if you grow a bell pepper right beside a ghost pepper plant, your peppers will be influenced by the spicier side. The nutrients in the soil also determine the sweetness of the pepper, as well as the weather and how long you leave the fruit on the vine. If you allow the pepper to mature from green to red, you will find a sweeter pepper no matter the amount of lobes. You can grow a species of pepper known for being sweeter than average.
Pepper Anatomy: What’s Inside Your Chili?
Botanically speaking, fruits are the seed-bearing pods on flowering plants. Chili peppers fall into this category; in fact, as nightshades they peppers themselves are technically berries in the eyes of a botanist. Other nightshade fruits include tomatoes and eggplants.
As with all other fruits, there are botanical terms for the different parts of a chili peppers anatomy. Each of these parts of the pepper has different properties which control the eating experience and heat. Let’s break down chili pepper anatomy and what each part brings to the table.
The pedicel is the stem that attaches to the flower or fruit to the plant. This is what you will cut to harvest the hot pepper. If there are multiple pedicels on a main stem, that main stem is called a peduncle.
The calyx is the part of the stem that connects to the very top of the chili pepper. It sits there like a hat. It is green and has outer parts called sepals that are made up of leaves and which would be like the brim of the hat. The purpose of the sepals is to protect the plant’s flower.
The seeds within the pepper fruit are the reproductive part of the plant. Contrary to widespread myth, they are not the main source of the heat in chili peppers as they are relatively low in capsaicin compared to the placenta.
This is where the seeds of the plant are attached to the top of the fruit. It is also known as the pith and lies directly below the calyx. This part of the plant is where most of the capsaicin in the chili pepper fruit resides (it contains 89% of the alkaloid capsaicin).
The capsaicin glands are positioned between the placenta and the seeds. If you want to lessen the heat of a hot pepper, this is the part that you will want to remove. Capsaicin is the compound that makes chili peppers hot. Because of this, many of the world’s hottest chilies have considerably more placenta when compared to other hot peppers.
The pericarp is the whole wall of the fruit. It refers to everything that encloses the fruit’s interior. The pericarp consists of three layers. The shiny, waxy outermost layer of the chili pepper is called the exocarp. The exocarp’s function is primarily protective. Underneath the exocarp is a middle wall called the mesocarp. As in other fruits, the pepper’s mesocarp provides structural support and holds much of the fruit’s water content. The innermost part of the pericarp is called the endocarp and it is the thin, membranous lining of the pericarp that encloses the placenta and the seeds.
The shoulder of the pepper is the rounded part of the pericarp just below the calyx. The shoulder can be broader or narrower depending on the hot pepper variety. For example, a scotch bonnet pepper will have broad shoulder, while a serrano will have a narrow shoulder.
The apex is the rounded tip of the fruit. Different varieties of hot peppers are rounded to different degrees. The apex of the chili pepper has the least amount of capsaicin in the whole fruit, so if you’re concerned with overall heat, use this portion of the hot pepper first.
Locules are the chambers within a fruit that contain the seeds. The number of chambers in chili peppers can vary. Some peppers have as many as four locules while others have only one. The locules in hot peppers are separated by placental walls.
I wish I could go back in time and tell myself to stop stressing over every seed in the pile of minced jalapeño: Because, no matter what you’ve been told at cocktail parties and by television hosts, it’s the white membrane (also referred to as the pith, the ribs, or the placental tissue) that is the real source of a pepper’s heat.
© Provided by Food52
This means that no matter how diligent you are about fishing out the seeds, if you’ve left in the white ribs, you’re going to get a whole lot of heat. (For those of you who have grown up with the Great Seed Conspiracy like I did, hearing that might feel like learning that the Berenstain Bears did not spell their last name Berenstein.)
© Provided by Food52 All About Chiles
All About Chiles by Leslie Stephens
What’s that you felt? The earth shaking beneath your feet?
I personally can’t remember when I first started to believe the Great Seed Heat Conspiracy. Perhaps a friendly Food Network host instructed that, for a less spicy salsa, I could leave out the seeds. I do know that over years of reading so many recipes that told me to remove the seeds (here and here and here), or, on the flip-side, to specifically leave them in, that implication turned to (false) fact: By controlling the number of seeds, I thought, you could also control the heat of the dish. (Goodness knows how many people I have spread this lie to over the years.)
And no matter how many times this myth has been debunked—
- on our Hotline,
- or on the Kitchn,
- or on Epicurious,
- or by Harold McGee (who reports that there are 100 parts capsaicin—that’s the heat-responsible chemical compound—in the ribs compared to 6 parts in the flesh and 4 parts in the seeds),
- or by our very own Kristen Miglore
—it seems to have a life of its own. An extremely informal survey of a few friends (“If you had to name the spiciest part of a chile, what would you say?”) yielded “seeds” as the first answer. (It was followed immediately by “Maybe it is the stem! That would be a twist.” Sorry to disappoint—it is not the stem.)
And a poll of our Twitter audience showed that 70% of the 420 respondents had been misled, too!
What’s the spiciest part of a chili pepper? 🌶
— Food52 (@Food52) July 12, 2017
Now it’s not entirely false that the seeds are fiery: Nestled among the membranes, they’ll carry some of its capsaicin around. But, as Kristen summarized, if you’re including the ribs, “your pile will be spicy whether you leave all the seeds behind or not.”
But I set out to see if I could taste a difference, seeds versus no seeds. We made three batches of Roberto Santibanez’s Genius Classic Guacamole:
- Whole serrano (as instructed in the recipe)
- No seeds, membrane included
- No seeds, no membrane
If the seeds were really the source of fire, as so many recipes imply, then guacamole number 2 (seedless) should have had the same heat level as guacamole number 3 (also seedless).
Such was not the case! In our office taste-test, guacamole number 2 (seedless!) was actually voted as far and away the hottest. (It should, in theory, not have been any hotter than number 1, as both included the membrane, but the heat level can vary between peppers.)
© Provided by Food52 Guacamole roulette. Guacamole roulette. Photo by Bobbi Lin
What have we learned here? For heat considerations, spend less time stressing about the seeds—and more time focused on the white membrane. And when a recipe says to “seed,” it’s likely that the writer intended you to “core”—to take out all of the spongy flesh in the middle, too. (But if it’s the texture of the seeds, not the fire of the dish, that’s the focus, that’s a different matter.)
If the chile is too hot for your taste, even with its membrane removed, you’ll have to resort to other methods for neutralizing its burn—though you’re likely to encounter a whole additional set of myths. And that’s before you start with the shenanigans for how to relieve a mouth on fire.
On those topics, more testing is definitely necessary. (But I cannot volunteer as a tester.)
GALLERY: The spiciest peppers in the world
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1/16 SLIDES © 166322054/
Carolina Reaper (USA) – 2,200,000 SHU
Ranked as the world’s hottest chili pepper by Guinness World Records, the Carolina Reaper was grown by “Smokin’ Ed” Currie from the The PuckerButt Pepper Company, known to develop “weapon quality peppers” as a vocation. The Carolina Reaper is a hybrid of Sweet Habanero and Naga Viper chilies. It is easily recognizable due to its unique tail and distinctive lobes. In addition to its spicy taste, it has a hint of fruity-sweet flavor as well. On an average, it is 100 times hotter than a jalapeño.
* The Scoville Heat Units (SHU) scale is a method of quantifying a substance’s pungency or ‘spiciness.’
2/16 SLIDES © blackboard1965/Getty Images
Trinidad Moruga Scorpion (Trinidad and Tobago) – 2,009,231 SHU
This pepper originated from the district of Moruga in Trinidad and Tobago. A hot and sweet combination, it is a blend of spicy and fruity flavors.
3/16 SLIDES © NomadicImagery/Getty Images
Trinidad Scorpion ‘Butch T’ (Trinidad and Tobago) – 1,463,700 SHU
A species of the hot chili pepper that is native to Trinidad, it got its name from Butch Taylor, the owner of Zydeco Farms in Woodville/Crosby, Mississippi, U.S., who is credited for first cultivating the chili seeds. The term “scorpion” is used to refer to the pointy end. The rough-textured pepper packs in a citrus flavor and sports a vibrant red color on being fully grown.
4/16 SLIDES © 3914846/
Naga Viper (UK) – 1,382,118 SHU
The hybrid produced from three of the world’s spiciest peppers — Naga Morich, Bhut Jolokia and Trinidad Scorpion — is also known as the Ghost Pepper. Grown by British chili farmer Gerald Fowler of The Chilli Pepper Company in Cumbria, U.K., the pepper has a sweet and tangy smell and is loaded with vitamin C.
5/16 SLIDES © ejkrouse/Getty Images
7 Pot Jonah (Trinidad) – 1,200,000 SHU
Native to the Chaguanas region of Trinidad, the pepper comes in a variety of colors ranging from white, yellow, red, and brown — the heat level being higher in the lighter shades. The fruity flavor-laden pepper has a lumpy, shriveled skin texture.
6/16 SLIDES © NTI Media Ltd/Rex /Features/Images
Infinity Chili (England) – 1,176,182 SHU
Grown by British chili breeder Nick Woods of Fire Foods, Grantham, Lincolnshire, U.K., it is a hybrid of the Capsicum chinense species. It is red in color and small in size. Wrinkly in texture, the pepper gets its name thanks to its never-ending spicy taste.
7/16 SLIDES © 324493/
Bhut Jolokia (India) – 1,041,427 SHU
Cultivated in the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland and Manipur, it is also known as Ghost Chili Pepper. It is a cross between Capsicum chinense and Capsicum frutescens. Used as a food item to combat summer heat, the thin-textured pepper is available in shades of red, yellow, orange and chocolate.
8/16 SLIDES © Hana76/Getty Images
Chocolate Habanero (USA) – 425,000 SHU
The three-inch long spherical-shaped pepper is also known as “Congo Black” or “Black Habanero.” Its unique smoky aroma makes it a hit with sauces such as the Mexican mole sauce and fruit salsas featuring apricots and raisins. Found in Mexico, the Caribbean Islands and Central America, it is grown in tropical regions in March or April.
9/16 SLIDES © 655102/
Scotch Bonnet Chili (Caribbean islands) – 350,000 SHU
A member of the Capsicum chinense family, it is so named owing to its resemblance to a Tam O’ shanter, the traditional Scottish bonnet cap worn by men. Native to the Caribbean, it can be found in the Maldives, Guyana, and parts of Africa. Available in shades of green, yellow and scarlet red, the pepper is a mix of spicy and citrusy flavors.
10/16 SLIDES © swa182/
Red Savina Habanero (USA) – 248,556 SHU
A breed of the Habanero chili family (Capsicum chinense Jacquin), the hybrid is spicier in taste and larger in size. Originating from Walnut in California, U.S., Red Savina Habanero packs in a sweet-fruity punch.
11/16 SLIDES © bhofack2/Getty Images
Orange Habanero (Mexico) – 250,000 SHU
The lantern-shaped wrinkly pepper goes well with a variety of hot sauces. Originating in the Yucatán, it is an integral part of the local cuisine. Its pungent smell is offset by an aromatic flavor. An unripe Habanero is green, and commonly takes on a red or orange shade upon ripening.
12/16 SLIDES © michelepautasso/Getty Images
Rocoto (USA) – 250,000 SHU
Widely cultivated in Peru and Bolivia and other parts of Central and South America, the pepper resembles an apple in shape. It is thick-skinned — much like Bell Peppers— with black seeds. Rocotos have a distinct fruity aroma and is available in red and yellow, with orange being the most prominent color in Mexico.
13/16 SLIDES © luissantos84/Getty Images
Piri Piri Chili (Africa) – 175,000 SHU
This hot little pepper is also known as “The African Red Devil” or “Bird’s Eye.” In Swahili language, piri piri refers to ‘pepper pepper.’ Cylindrical in shape, it sports a reddish orange tint and is commonly used in the popular piri piri sauce, which is Portuguese in origin.
14/16 SLIDES © 2435534/
Tabasco Chili (Mexico) – 50,000 SHU
Belonging to the chili pepper spices Capsicum frutescens, it is used to make the widely-known Tabasco sauce. It has a tapered shape and is super juicy in taste. The pepper ripens from pale yellowish-green and orange to bright red in color.
15/16 SLIDES © 576826/
Jalapeño Chili (Mexico) – 8,000 SHU
Extremely popular in Central and North America, the jalapeño is used in a variety of foods including sauces, dips and various Mexican delicacies. Thick in texture, the cone-shaped pepper is most often used when dark green; it is red when fully ripe.
16/16 SLIDES © Dave King/Getty Images
Guajillo Chili (Mexico) – 5,000 SHU
Widely used in Mexican cuisine, it has an aromatic flavor and bursts with sweet and hot flavors. Just the right note of heat, the thin-textured Guajillo chili sports a flaming red color. It is a variety of the species Capsicum annuum and has a pungent smell.
Is this news to you, or is it not a surprise at all? Tell us in the comments below!
The Biochemistry of Peppers
The plant genus Capsicum, ranging from bell peppers to chili peppers, bestows upon us a set of condiments now beloved the world over, and which allow one to “jazz up” dishes not only with respect to taste, but also visually. Hungarian, Mexican, Korean, and Indian cuisines are almost unthinkable without their peppery sting.
But how is it that only members of the species Capsicum are able to make compounds that produce this intense effect? Here, we will try to explore the scientific background behind this sensation of “a tongue on fire” – which fades only gradually – in the hope that our readers come to enjoy spicy dishes more when they are more informed.
1. From Haiti to Europe
For aficionados of spicy dishes, January 1st should class as an important holiday (quite apart from being New Year’s Day!), because on that day in 1493, Christopher Columbus – on his first trip along the north coast of present-day Haiti – discovered a plant he assumed must be related to the common black pepper on account of the extraordinary spiciness of its fruit. “This pepper, that the local Indians use as a seasoning, grows everywhere here, and is more valuable than black pepper or melegueta pepper” . The latter is often called “Grains of Paradise”.
Actually, this discovery wasn’t totally by chance, because one goal of the expedition – financed by the Spanish monarchy – was to locate a rich new source of pepper. In Europe, pepper was not the most expensive of spices, but it was quantitatively the most important, and the lucrative pepper trade was firmly in the hands of the Venetians, much to the chagrin of the Spanish court. This dominance somehow needed to be broken!
Columbus called his new plant “red pepper”, although with some uncertainty: “It causes me a great deal of pain that I am not able actually to identify it , especially because I am sure that it is valuable.”
It turned out that his botanical suspicions were indeed justified. It was the French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656–1708) who later became the first to classify the supposed “red pepper” under the new genus Capsicum, where it became part of the nightshade family (solanaceae). Black pepper (Piper nigrum, from a long-familiar pepper-plant family, the piperaceae) is not even related to what Columbus took to be a kind of “pepper”, but his mistake proved an enduring one, as various fruits of the Capsicum family are still referred to today in everyday language as “peppers”.
The new plants that Columbus brought to Europe soon became widely distributed, even into Asia, thanks to trade along the traditional “Spice Road”. Capsicum was quickly integrated into regional cuisines of the Mediterranean countries, as well as North Africa and both the Near- and Far-East, whereas Central Europeans at first reacted skeptically to this new “pepper”, adopting the plants only as ornaments . This is in a way rather astonishing, as Leonhart Fuchs made explicit reference to red pepper in his herbal book of 1543, noting that the seeds of the new Indian pepper “produced nearly all the effects, and had nearly all the virtues of real pepper”.
Capsicum eventually made its way, through the Ottoman Empire, into Hungary in the 17th century, where it quickly developed into a sort of “national spice”, and from there it slowly migrated into much of Central Europe.
2. Botanical Aspects of Capsicum
Capsicum plants were native to what is now Bolivia and Peru. Birds further disseminated the robust wild plant over large reaches of South and Central America. The indigenous peoples of these regions domesticated the plant more than 6000 years ago , making Capsicum the very first of all plants to be cultivated by man.
Among the over 30 wild varieties, only five have actually been domesticated: Capsicum annuum (Fig. 1), Capsicum frutescens, Capsicum chinense, Capsicum baccatum, and Capsicum pubescens, where the first three are the ones that have gained economic significance. The names they have been assigned are puzzling: Capsicum annuum is most certainly not an “annual”, the fruit of C. baccatum is not limited to “berries”, Capsicum chinense has its origins in the Caribbean, not China, and the leaves of C. pubescens are not always “hairy”! The boundaries between the various species are also subject to hefty dispute among botanists. For example, many authors combine C. chinense and C. frutescens together in a single class. Unquestionably, at the head of the pack is Capsicum annuum, and for one simple reason: quite accidentally, this was the variety Columbus encountered in Haiti, and then brought home with him to Europe.
Figure 1. Capsicum annuum species.
The layman would find it almost impossible to assign a particular plant to its proper species, and even botanists disagree about the number of species, their distinguishing characteristics, and the boundaries that separate the various peppers .
As a consequence of centuries-long cultivation in diverse climatic zones, and the frequent identification of new cultivars, the five species mask an enormous number of subspecies, types, and varieties, bred intentionally with respect to criteria such as robustness, harvest yield, intensity of color, pungency (“hotness”), and aroma.
The result is also a linguistic tangle of Babylonian proportions. Consider: what the Germans call “Paprikaschoten” (pepper pods) – although from a strictly botanical perspective these are not pods at all, but instead hollow berries, as this indehiscent fruit (a type that at maturity does not open to discharge seeds) is formed from a single ovary, and the pericarp (fruit wall) of the ripe fruit is juicy and meaty – or “Gemüsepaprikas” (vegetable peppers), are known in many English-speaking countries simply as peppers. But in many places, including the United States, also as bell peppers, due to their shape. To add to the mix, in Switzerland the same things are called Peperoni, but in Austria Pfefferoni are “hot” peppers, which the Germans call Peperoni. In Italian and English, “pepperoni” refers to spicy sausages. In parts of Latin America, spicy (hot) peppers are aji, in southern Africa they are piri-piri, and in many countries chilis. The latter go under the name chili peppers in the USA, but simply chiles in Mexico. To further complicate things: especially in certain southwestern states in the USA, “chili” may indeed be associated with a spicy version of the fruit, but it more often designates a sort of “bean stew”. Chilli (with two “l’s”) in England and Australia means a “hot” variety of Capsicum, which ever more frequently in Germany is also called either Chilli or simply Chili, but sometimes Peperoni.
From a botanical standpoint the whole thing is far simpler: all are fruits belonging to the species Capsicum – “Paprika” in German, and “pepper” in English. Period!
3. Culinary Matters Relative to Peppers
3.1 Their Splendid Color
When we enjoy peppers, whether raw or in some elaborate culinary creation, our pleasure is always the consequence of a harmonic interplay involving all our senses. Our eyes capture the beautiful form and color, our ears the crackle and consistency as we chew, our tongues the flavor components (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami ), and our noses the bouquet or scent.
Now let us consider these remarkable sensory aspects of peppers from a chemical point of view. You’ll be amazed!
The green, yellow, orange–red, or deep red bell peppers are especially attractive visually, and for that reason alone they are prized in virtually every cuisine. As it ripens, a pepper puts on a kaleidoscopic display, passing sequentially from bold green by way of yellow and orange to a deep red (Fig. 2). This, of course, reflects a coordinated synthetic chemical process, which we will look at a bit more closely in what follows.
Figure 2. The play of colors at various stages during the ripening of C. annuum cv. Charleston Hot.
The Immature, “Green” State
As with other fruits, the principal pigments visible to us early on are the chlorophylls a and b ((1a) and (1b); Fig. 3), probably most familiar as the universal leaf pigments. Chlorophylls are complex macrocyclic compounds with an extensive system of conjugated double bonds, responsible in turn for conferring upon the molecule its color. One side chain, bonded by way of an ester linkage, represents a C20 alcohol (phytol), through which the pigment is anchored in the thylakoid membranes of the chloroplasts. Chlorophyll is at the very heart of photosynthesis, though it is far from the only pigment involved; several yellow and yellow-orange carotenoid pigments also act as gatherers of light.
Figure 3. Sources of color in peppers.
The term “carotenoid” encompasses not only the carotenes (C20 hydrocarbons), but also their oxygenated derivatives, the xanthophylls. However, the yellow color displayed by these latter pigments generally remains hidden to the eye as in most circumstances the chlorophylls completely mask all other colors present.
The Ripening Process
As the fruit ripens, chlorophylls – together with the secondary photosynthesis pigments – are slowly decomposed, and new yellow and ultimately red pigments emerge . Figure 4 presents an overview of the pigment content of three C. annuum varieties before and after maturation. The changes in pigmentation correspond to the play of colors depicted in Figure 2. A conspicuous feature is nearly complete degradation of the yellow–orange lutein (4), and the synthesis of the deep-red pigments capsanthin (8), capsanthin-5,6-epoxide (9), and capsorubin (10).
Figure 4. Carotenoids in unripe and ripe peppers (C. annuum) .
The enjoyment of the brilliant colors can be increased by learning that peppers are one of the very few plants capable of biosynthesizing these red pigments, which are, therefore, sometimes called the “paprika ketones” (note the presence of a keto function in each). Animals are incapable of synthesizing any carotenoids. Though some make use of those they consume from vegetation in their diets – using them either directly or after chemical modification. Thus, hens employ carotenoids in the production of yellow egg yolks, flamingos need them for their rose-colored plumage, and the characteristic hue of salmon flesh also depends on carotenoids salmon find in their diet. Finally, the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) owes the unique yellow color of its face to a particularly exotic diet; it subsists largely on the dung of herbivorous animals !
Biosynthesis of the “paprika ketones” capsanthin and capsorubin is remarkable as it involves an unusual pinacol rearrangement (Fig. 5) .
Figure 5. The pinacol–pinacolone rearrangement.
The chemically versed gastronome should savor the extraordinary occurrence of this reaction in the mouth, because in the laboratory a pinacol rearrangement typically requires the presence of concentrated sulfuric acid, but peppers achieve it quite effortlessly at pH 7 and room temperature (albeit with help from a hitherto unknown enzyme system; Fig. 6). Hats off!
Figure 6. Biosynthesis of the pepper ketones.
Degradation of the green chlorophylls supports the biosynthesis of the carotenoids, which entails the incorporation of eight isoprene units. The initially formed hydrocarbons, e.g., β-carotene itself, are subsequently oxidized to alcohols or epoxides. Biochemical studies with 14C- and 3H-labeled compounds have made it possible to show that the paprika ketones arise exclusively and directly, through pinacol rearrangements, from the epoxides antheraxanthin (6) and violaxanthin (7); (Fig. 7) .
Figure 7. The biosynthesis of pepper ketones; the pepper ketones are formed exclusively and directly through pinacol rearrangements, starting with the epoxides antheraxanthin and violaxanthan.
3.2 The Seductive Aroma
With respect to culinary pleasure, only rarely is a rigorous distinction made between taste and smell, as awareness of both derives from the nose/mouth realm, and both contribute to the overall sensation we describe as “flavor” or “taste”. Eating with a congested nose, or with the nose pinched shut, provides convincing proof that the “taste” of a particular food is perceived, to a great extent, by the nose in the form of an aroma, and rather less as a flavor, detected with the tongue.
For most of the (red) pepper grown throughout the world it is actually an appealing aroma that matters most, not how “hot” the product is. For this reason, a great many studies have been conducted of the various characteristic scents. Surprisingly, the aroma so familiar and typical for a green bell pepper is due almost entirely to a single substance: 2-methoxy-3-isobutylpyrazine (11); (Fig. 8). The human nose is able to detect this “pepper-scented” compound at the almost unbelievably dilute aqueous concentration of 0.002 parts-per-trillion (i.e., 2:1,000,000,000,000). This means that the so-called bell pepper pyrazine is, for humans, among the very most odor-intense substances known.
Figure 8. Aromatic (fragrant) components in peppers.
Apart from this pyrazine, there are a few other compounds that contribute to the overall characteristic aroma of a pepper (Fig. 8). It is of culinary importance, too, that the various pepper species exhibit significant differences in their aroma profiles. For example, among the volatile components of C. chinense there is no bell pepper pyrazine (11) whatsoever, so that here the typical aroma of green pepper is completely absent. In its place is β-ionone (21), as well as various esters, all of which lead to a corresponding fruity/floral bouquet.
As a result of the wide range of varieties, as well as the diverse growing conditions represented by the many cultivation regions around the world, the information about the aroma given above only provides a guide. Indeed, one of the charms of the pepper family is the fact that the culinary pleasure to be derived is ascertainable neither from size, nor color, nor place of origin. In other words, more than ample room is available for surprise.
3.3 The Spicy (“hot”) Components
What most clearly distinguishes pepper plants and their fruits from all other species is the extent of their spiciness. It is true that ginger, mustard, and black pepper also count among what we regard as ”strong” seasonings, but when it comes to absolute “sting” or “hotness”, nothing approaches the red pepper. It is no wonder, then, that the agents responsible for “hotness” are produced uniquely by the single species Capsicum. From the standpoint of synthetic creativity, none of their close relatives within the nightshade family can surpass the peppers. We learned long ago to keep at arm’s length henbane, belladonna, angel’s trumpet, jimsonweed, and even tobacco, but the related Capsicum simply regales us with the effects of its unique alkaloids.
It is understandable that chemists have for ages been interested in the spicy components of peppers. Their first isolation was accomplished in 1876 by Thresh , who was also first to put forth the name “capsaicin”. In all probability, however, the material he had was actually a mixture. Structure 22 (Fig. 9) was first proposed for the principal component by Nelson in 1919 , a structure that has since been confirmed in various ways through many total syntheses .
Figure 9. The spicy (“hot”) substances in peppers. Scoville heat units = SHU.
Given the compound’s relatively simple structure, it has also become possible to prepare a host of derivatives; pharmacological studies have been conducted as well in a quest for definitive structure–activity relationships. Thus, the vanillyl-like residue – including its amide function group – is now known to be essential, whereas anywhere between 8 and 11 carbon atoms can be present in the carboxyl chain. Shorter or longer chains do reduce the pungency somewhat, whereas terminal methyl branching clearly enhances it and the presence or absence of the double bond makes only a minimal difference.
The various pepper species and their countless varieties differ not only in overall content of “hot” substances, but also in the distribution of the various contributors . So far, over 20 different capsaicinoids are known, in all of which an unchanging aromatic vanillyl-like residue (red; Figs. 9 and 10) is joined through an amide linkage to an aliphatic chain (black).
From among the many relevant compounds, capsaicin itself (22) and dihydrocapsaicin (24) always constitute over 80 % of the capsaicinoids present in all the hot peppers studied. These two compounds also produce the greatest sensory impact , and, thus, their content also determines the overall pungency of a pepper. Nevertheless, minor components also make a contribution to the overall pleasure conferred, owing to their diverse sensory characteristics.
The pungent oral sensation induced by capsaicin (22) and dihydrocapsaicin (24) increases rapidly in the middle and rear portions of the tongue and gums, and persists for a long time, whereas for homodihydrocapsaicin (25) the effect develops more slowly, and only in the rear of the mouth. Nordihydrocapsaicin (23) is perceived as milder in the frontal region of the tongue, and its effect diminishes more rapidly.
How does capsicum – the only species that manages to do so – synthesize these wonderful pungent substances?
Studies with isotopically labeled metabolites have shown that the amino acid phenylalanine is the starting point for the aromatic portion of all these molecules, with the various carboxylic acids segments coming from the amino acids valine, leucine, or isoleucine, depending upon chain length and branching pattern (Fig. 10). The enzyme capsaicin synthase joins the two fragments by way of an amide linkage in the final synthetic step. Capsaicin synthase was reportedly isolated from the placenta of Capsicum, and found to be a protein with a molecular weight of 38 kDa, the synthetic activity of which correlated well with the concentration of capsaicin in the tissue .
Figure 10. Biosynthesis of capsaicin.
Unfortunately, subsequent to publication of these results, it turned out that the protein investigated was perhaps not a “capsaicin synthase” after all, but could have instead been a protein kinase, and two years later the paper was withdrawn . The true structure of capsaicin synthase, therefore, remains unknown.
One can use the tongue to test where capsaicin synthesis takes place in spicy varieties of the peppery fruit. Contrary to commonly held belief, the seeds are not a source of capsaicin. Instead, capsaicin-producing glands are to be found in the upper layer of the placenta (Fig. 11). At very high capsaicin concentrations, however, the compound can diffuse into neighboring tissue . A similar migration also frequently occurs in the course of processing and drying.
Figure 11. Where does the actual “hotness” (pungent spiciness) originate in peppers?
Bell pepper pyrazine (11), which produces the characteristic flavor and scent in green bell peppers, is found primarily in the fleshy parts of the fruit. Some varieties of C. chinense, including Scotch Bonnet and Habanero, contain essentially nobell pepper pyrazine, so that with these especially “hot” varieties the typical “vegetable pepper aroma” is completely absent, replaced instead by a strong fruity character .
The components constituting the overall bouquet are synthesized in various parts of the fruit, where bell pepper pyrazine (11), source of the characteristic green bell pepper scent, originates in the flesh, whereas fruity and floral esters come from the placenta.
In other words, “hot” spiciness and aroma are most certainly not mutually exclusive.
Prof. Klaus Roth
Freie Universität Berlin, Germany.
The article has been published in German in:
- Chem. Unserer Zeit 2010, 44(2), 138–151.
and was translated by W. E. Russey.
The Biochemistry of Peppers – Part 2
If a bowl of chili con carne “tastes” good because of its pleasant sharpness, this is, strictly speaking, wrong. We can only taste sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami. Sharp is not among them!
► See all articles by Klaus Roth published by ChemViews magazine
Are Bell Pepper Lobes An Indicator Of Pepper Plant Gender And Seed Production?
You’ve likely seen or heard the claim floating around social media that one can tell the gender of a bell pepper, or which has more seeds, by the number of lobes or bumps, along the bottom of the fruit. The idea of this sparked some curiosity, naturally, so I decided to find out for myself if this is true. To my knowledge of gardening, I have never heard of any specific gender associated with these plants. Here’s what I found.
Pepper Gender Myth
It’s believed that the number of bell pepper lobes has something to do with its sex (gender). Females supposedly have four lobes, are full of seeds and sweeter tasting while males have three lobes and are less sweet. So is this a true indicator of pepper plant gender?
Fact: It is the flower, not the fruit, which is the sexual organ in plants. Bell peppers produce flowers having both male and female parts (known as “perfect” flowers). As such, there is no particular gender associated with the fruit.
The majority of large bell pepper varieties, which top out at about 3 inches wide by 4 inches long, will normally have three to four lobes. That being said, some types have less and others more. So if the lobes were an indicator to the gender of peppers, then what the heck would a two- or five-lobed pepper be?
The truth of the matter is that the number of bell pepper lobes has no bearing on the sex of the plant — it produces both on one plant. That settles gender.
Pepper Seeds and Taste
So what about the claim in which the number of lobes a pepper fruit has dictates its seediness or taste?
Fact: As to a bell pepper having four lobes containing more seeds than one having three, this could be possible, but the overall size of the fruit seems to be a better indicator of this — though I would argue that size doesn’t matter. I’ve had some gargantuan peppers with barely a seed inside while some of the smaller ones have had numerous seeds. In fact, all bell peppers contain one or more chambers from which seeds develop. The number of chambers is genetic, having no impact on the number of seeds produced.
Fact: The number of bell pepper lobes, be it three or four (or whatever) has no bearing on how sweet a pepper tastes. In actuality, the environment in which the pepper is grown and the nutrition of the soil has more of an effect on this. The variety of bell pepper also determines the sweetness of fruit.
Well, there you have it. In addition to not being a factor in pepper plant gender, the number of lobes a bell pepper has does not determine seed production or taste. Guess you can’t believe everything you see or hear, so don’t assume otherwise. When in doubt, or simply curious, do your research.
An image of green bell pepper lobes making an extraordinary claim seems to never stop making the rounds on Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook. The written message on the image claims that you should flip over bell peppers to check their gender. The ones with four bumps are females and the ones with three bumps are male. The female peppers are full of seeds, but sweeter and better for eating raw and the males are better for cooking.
I had never planned on bothering to write an article about this claim because it was well covered on Snopes and other websites. But, I’m so sick of this nonsense being circulated despite being debunked, that I thought it time to add another debunking. Otherwise, if people don’t continue to counter it, this “fact” about bell peppers may never go away. It’s one of those cute little food facts people like to believe even though it may make them waste time searching for a three-lobed pepper and avoiding ones with four lobes.
The number of lobes (bumps) on the end of a bell pepper does not indicate the fruit’s gender. Bell peppers do not have gender. They come from flowers with both male and female reproductive parts and can self-pollinate if needed.
As well, a pepper with more seeds will simply be a larger pepper. The seeds are attached to membranes and this has no bearing on the taste of the pepper’s flesh nor their suitability for cooking. I understand that due to the power of belief perseverance that many will accept the botanical facts but still insist that there is a grain of truth. They will state that, sure, peppers don’t have gender but the facts about cooking still apply and that a three-lobed pepper will not be as sweet but will be better for cooking while a four-lobed pepper will be better for eating raw.
Given this belief, look at the choice of image. Green bell peppers are not sweet. They are essentially an unripe fruit. Bell peppers, while ripening turn yellow, then orange, then red. A red bell pepper will be the sweetest. If you can detect a subtle difference in sweetness between one green pepper and another, then you truly have a sensitive palate. I actually do not think that many cooks are following through on this instruction. I think people just love sharing nonsense on social media. But, if I can save even a few people some time wasted counting pepper lobes, then I think it’s worth adding another voice to the chorus of authoritative websites that have already debunked this myth.
Thinking that the number of lobes the bottom of a pepper signals gender and affects its flavor is a harmless enough thing to believe. However, if you accept one bit of nonsense, you open yourself up to more. And besides, now you know you can simply choose the freshest pepper that is the size you need, without counting the lobes!
See also Is the Heat In Chile Pepper Found in the Seeds?
It’s safe to say that there is a lot of misinformation bouncing around on the Internet these days—some serious and some just, plain senseless! As a matter of fact, one of the silliest pieces of hype that has recently spread like wildfire involves one of our favorite foods: bell peppers.
OK, so maybe standing up for peppers isn’t high on most people’s lists, but we think it’s important to clear the air, especially considering this bit of false information may be affecting the taste of your food!
‘Mythbusting’ for peppers
If you are always on the hunt for new and innovative recipes on various food blogs, then you may have noticed a perplexing trend. You see, there seems to be a lot of talk regarding the ‘genders’ of bell peppers. Some sites claim that a ‘male’ pepper has three bumps, while a ‘female’ has four. Weird, huh?!
(yep, these guys truly care about their peppers!), the concept of assigning a gender to this fruit may have arisen due to a misunderstanding concerning the flowering process of peppers.
You see, before a fruit is produced, peppers bloom as hermaphroditic flowers, meaning they have both male and female reproductive systems. As the plant grows, some of the female flowers and male flowers separate and spread throughout, but this does not change the fact that they are unisex.
Austin Kirk via Flickr
What’s in a bump?
Just because bell peppers don’t have genders doesn’t mean that the lobes (the bumps on the bottom of the fruit) aren’t significant. Depending on the piece of fruit, the number of lobes could determine many important characteristics about each individual pepper, including flavor, texture, and seed content.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a fair amount of controversy when it comes to ‘counting lobes’, but we find that there is a simple rule of thumb that can be followed to help you get the most out of your selection.
Three lobes vs. four
You see, each pepper comes equipped with between 2 and 5 lobes. Here in the United States, we almost always eat the kinds that have three or four.
For the most part, bell peppers with three lobes are generally considered to be better when cooked. So, if you prefer to eat your peppers in a stir fry or as part of a yummy shish kabob, this is the variety to choose!
On the other side of the coin is the four-lobed bell pepper. These guys are usually quite a bit sweeter, with many more seeds than their counterpart. We definitely prefer to much on the four-lobed variety raw.
Why you should consume more peppers
Aside from being oh-so delicious, bell peppers are also very good for you! No matter the number of bumps, one serving of this colorful fruit will provide you with plenty of Vitamins K, C, A, E, and B6, potassium, and a generous amount of dietary fiber.
Even more reason to count those lobes and get the most flavor out of those peppers!
Now that we’ve cracked the mystery of the lobe, we want to hear about your experience with this fruit. Did you know about this bell pepper gender fallacy? What variety of pepper is your favorite? How do you like to cook your bell peppers?
Chow Line: No such thing as male and female bell peppers
I saw a link on Facebook saying that male bell peppers have three bumps on the bottom and are better for cooking, while female bell peppers have four bumps and are sweeter and better for eating raw. Is that true?
Although the myth that bell peppers are either male or female continues to spread, bell peppers do not have genders.
According to the myth, “male” bell peppers have three lobes and are more bitter, while “female” bell peppers have four or more lobes, have more seeds, and are sweeter to eat.
However, bell peppers grow from flowers that have both male and female parts. The peppers, which are the fruits of a pepper plant, each contain ovaries that produce the seeds inside the peppers. Each pepper is produced through self-fertilization. The seeds are formed in each pepper after pollination, with those seeds then able to form new pepper plants.
Peppers are warm-season vegetables and are part of the Solanaceae or Nightshade family, along with tomatoes, eggplants, and potatoes, according to Growing Peppers in the Home Garden, a recent Ohioline fact sheet.
Ohioline is Ohio State University Extension’s free online information resource and can be found at ohioline.osu.edu. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
Peppers are easily grown, can be prolific producers, and can be grown in a variety of colors, shapes, and flavors. For instance, green bell peppers are green when they are in their immature stage. Bell peppers that ripen on the plant longer will develop a red, orange, yellow, or purple color.
Just like many other fruits and vegetables, the degree of sweetness is generally a factor of how ripe the fruit or vegetable is. Bell peppers start out green, then ripen to yellow, then orange, then red, and in some cases turn purple. Thus red, orange, yellow, and purple bell peppers are generally sweeter than green bell peppers. And the lobes on peppers are determined by growing conditions and genetics, so they don’t indicate the sweetness factor of the pepper in any way.
Bell peppers are an excellent, healthy dietary option. They are a great source of vitamins A and C, and beta-carotene. They also provide essential minerals including iron, copper, zinc, potassium, manganese, magnesium, and selenium. And they are a great-tasting, low-cost vegetable.
Chow Line is a service of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC). Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or [email protected]
Editor: This column was reviewed by Timothy McDermott, educator, OSU Extension.
I was at the grocery store yesterday looking at peppers when the lady next to me asked if I knew there were male and female peppers. She had learned it on Facebook! I have been a home economist for many years and had never learned that to be true. She went on to tell me that the peppers with three bumps or lobes on the bottom were male and were best for cooking. The ones with four bumps on the bottom were female and were best for eating raw. I did not want to argue with her on the spot but I went straight home and went to the research based sites I use online to confirm that the bumps had nothing to do with the peppers being male or female. It is indeed a garden myth but one that does circulate periodically on social media. How many bumps a pepper has on the bottom is primarily related to the variety and growing conditions.
Bell peppers grow from flowers possessing both male and female parts. They do not have a gender.
The number of lobes on a pepper also has nothing to do with taste. Sweetness is usually a factor of ripeness. Bell shaped peppers in their immature state are green with a slightly bitter flavor. As they mature they turn bright red and become sweeter. There are also yellow, orange, white, pink, and purple varieties of peppers.
The heat of a pepper is measured in Scoville units. Bell peppers have a Scoville heat unit of 0 while habanero peppers have a Scoville heat unit of 100,000 to 350,000. To remove some of the heat from peppers you can remove the seeds and interior ribs before cooking.
Peppers add flavor and color to so many dishes and are also great for snacking.
I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Home Economics Education. I enjoy spending time with my family and friends and traveling.