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Hot on the trail of chillies

Nick Barnes of The Chilli Doctor investigates the sourcing of chillies worldwide together with their traceability and provenance.

As consumers are becoming more savvy about chillies so retailers and food companies are getting better at naming them and understanding the properties of the different types of chilli. Encona, the hot pepper sauce brand known for its Caribbeanstyle sauces, often uses provenance as a descriptor, for example Peruvian Amarillo Chilli Sauce, Brazillian BBQ Sauce, African and Louisiana style. Waitrose Cooks’ Ingredients has a range of dried chillies, better known as capsicums, such as Cascabel and Habenaro. Other manufacturers are also starting to experiment with named capsicums.

To make a product successful in its flavour and consumer appeal, the raw chilli ingredients need to be right and the format fit for purpose. The Chilli Doctor has developed the Chilli Decision Process, which gives manufacturers six simple choices when selecting chillies for their recipes and product formulations: colour, pungency, provenance, price, health and organoleptic.


Capsicums come in many colours; although the standard colours are red and green, manufacturers are increasingly asking for yellow, purple, orange and black chillies. Orange Rocoto has naturally black seeds and the Amarillo from Peru is a bright yellow chilli like a yellow bell pepper with medium pungency. As a red chilli has stayed on the plant for longer, it is more rounded and richer, with a more reliable pungency than green chillies.

The Chili Doctor Decision Process


Chilli plants are notoriously variable, with chillies of different heats coming from a single plant. Some have no pungency at all and others will blow your head off! Environmental factors play a big part; if a whole crop is subject to heavy rain, the plants survive, but the chilli pungency is greatly reduced as they put on a growth spurt. Stop watering and they become stressed producing more capsaicin, an alkaloid which determines pungency, along with four chemicals called capsaicinoids. Each alkaloid has a different effect on your taste buds and the amount present produces differing sensations. Hotter chillies burn for longer; some burn with brief intensity, while others give a warm glow, but no fireworks.

The notorious Ghost Chilli (Naga Jolokia) and the record holding Smokin Ed’s Carolina Reaper are among the hottest chillies at over 2 million Scoville Heat Units (more than 50 times hotter than a Jalapeno). The Dulce and Panca Chillies tingle gently on the tongue but have little pungency. Pungency can be addictive; chilli festivals are growing in popularity, where people line up to have their heads blown off by sausages made with Ghost Chilli or sauces with Carolina Reaper and barbecue coating using Habanero powder.

Naga Jolokia (or Ghost Chilli) at an early stage of growth in Assam, North East India

Naga Jolokia (or Ghost Chilli) at an early stage of growth in Assam, North East India


Manufacturers often insist on provenance to differentiate products in a competitive marketplace. For example, when developing a range of Thai sauces, the choice can now be between Prik Ka Reing, Prik Jin Da or Priok Kee Nu Saun capsicums. Many people are surprised to learn that Peru produces the largest range of capsicums (more than Mexico or India); many are grown by Professor ‘Tito’, also known as Professor ‘Aji’ (Aji is the Inca word for ‘chilli’), who has studied, recorded and cultivated around 380 species of chilli originating in Peru. Mexico has more commercial influence in the chilli world with around 200 named capsicums, such as Jalapeno, Ancho, Guiajillo, Habanero and Chipotle (actually a Smoked Red Jalapeno). Closer to home is the Dorset Naga, Spanish Paprika and the Pimente D’Espelette from the foothills of the Pyrenees. Every chilli has a story based on its origin as well as its role in the culture and cuisine of the source country.


The most expensive capsicum is probably the Pimente D’Espelette at nearly £100/kg for dried product. Price is to blame for the overuse of the Cayenne – Cayenne having become a pseudonym for any cheap hot red chilli powder (usually an Indian red chilli called the ‘S4’ in the ingredients industry) and perhaps the cheapest source of pungency. Generally the higher the pungency, the more expensive the chilli. ‘The smaller, the hotter’ isn’t always true as the Habanero pepper shows; it is over an inch wide with a pungency of 300,000+ on the Scoville scale. Priced at £2/kg in a paste format, it is pound for pound the hottest pepper available at a reasonable price.


Perhaps the least understood element of the decision tree is health. Chillies are now one of the top 10 vitamin providers in the world with 20% of the world’s population eating chillies daily. They are high in vitamin C, which explains their popularity among 14th and 15th century explorers from Portugal, Spain and England, who discovered their anti-scurvy benefits and grew them on-board ships helping spread chillies round the globe for the following 250 years. Prior to this the ‘Aji’, as it is known to the Incas, was only found in Central or South America. The Healing Powers of Peppers by Dave Dewitt lists a wide variety of health benefits from chillies ranging from capsaicin creams for conditions like arthritis to anaesthetic properties for soothing haemorrhoids and chilli capsules for stomach ulcers and indigestion.

Jamie Oliver has also recommended chillies for breakfast to help increase metabolism and lose weight. While instinct tells you to be wary of high-pungency chillies, there Cows love chillies and will run towards feed troughs when small amounts of chilli are included (only small quantities are added so it doesn’t carry through to their milk). Researchers at Virginia Tech found that adding capsaicin to poultry feed increased Salmonella are little or no long-term harmful effects associated with eating them in moderation. resistance potentially reducing the amount of antibiotics the birds needed to be fed.[1] More research is needed in this area.


Chilli tastings should start with mild chillies in, for example, a chocolate bar or muffin. The Incas were the first people to mix chillies and chocolate, which combines earth and berry notes. Chilli marmalade made with the Peruvian Amarillo is delicious, especially if paired with a soft cheese as the pungency of the Amarillo comes through the marmalade, but works gently on the pallet. Banana Habanero pickle is a little warmer with the flavour delivered by the gentle bite of the pickled vegetables and the sweetness of the fruits; the Habanero burns slowly and for longer leaving the mouth feeling warm from front to back. Medium heat chillies leave the mouth warm, not burning, and the pungency is evenly distributed through the mouth/tongue and throat. Some chillies can bite like a snake, then the heat is gone. The Charapita can fill a room with a lovely fresh fruity aroma and chefs love the colours of the Amarillo and Rocoto chillies.


With consumers showing increased interest in chillies, there has been an increase in demand by manufacturers wishing to incorporate them into new products, which may be hotter, sweeter or more colourful. We should not underestimate the complexity, diversity, health benefits and commercial opportunities that chillies can offer.      



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