Trending – Hot Sauce Overview

Hot sauce is one of the fastest-growing condiments beloved by many cultures for the sharp, at times uncomfortable, flavor and sensation it imparts on foods. In this series, we look at hot sauces.

What is hot sauce?

In the U.S., hot sauce typically refers to any sauce, salsa, or seasoning made primarily from chili peppers, found in the genus Capsicum, combined with other ingredients. 
Chili peppers are native to the Americas and spread across the globe through trade routes and were furtherSubscribe for weekly updates_ go.msu.edu_cris-connect cultivated throughout the world. 

What ingredients are common in hot sauce?

Chili peppers of all varieties are the main ingredient in hot sauces providing their fiery flavor. 
Other common ingredients include vinegar, citrus fruits (lemons, limes, etc.), seasonings (e.g., garlic), salt, and other vegetables and fruits often pickled in the sauce. 

Why is it spicy? 

We experience the spicy flavor and sensation due to capsaicin. Capsaicin is the active component found in chili peppers. 
Capsaicin is considered a chemical irritant and produces a burning sensation when mammals, including humans, come in contact with the chemical ingredient. 
We often intentionally come into contact with capsaicin through cooking. However, it doesn't only cause a burning sensation when eaten. When in contact, it can cause a burning sensation on our skin, eyes, and other body parts. 
The burning sensation is most intense on body parts with mucous membranes (e.g., eyes, nose, mouth, etc.). That's why it's essential to wear gloves when handling chili peppers and wash our hands after handling the peppers. 

How is spiciness rated?

Chili peppers are most often rated using the Scoville scale, identifying their spiciness using Scoville Heat Units (SHU). 
The Scoville scale was developed in 1912 and relies on human subjectivity to determine chili pepper's spiciness. The testing is done by making an alcohol-based chili pepper extract and then diluting it until it no longer tastes hot to the testers. The degree of dilution determines the SHU (1).

For example, mild bell pepper will have a Scoville scale of 300SHU whereas an orange habanero pepper will have a Scoville index of 400,000SHU (1).
More accurate testing using high-performance liquid chromatography exists. The technology allows scientists to measure capsaicinoid content to determine spice without human subjectivity. However, the Scoville scale is most frequently used and advertised when selling chili peppers and hot sauces (1,2).

Is capsaicin used in medications?

Yes, while we're very familiar with hot sauce, the component capsaicin has medicinal qualities. We find it in pharmaceutical medications to help treat various ailments, most often to help with pain management.
It's important to work with a medical doctor or pharmacist for pain management rather than using capsaicin-containing chili peppers to make your own treatments.  

What else do I need to know? 

Pepper spray, bear sprays, mace, and other capsaicin-containing sprays are chemical irritants not intended to be consumed in food or beverages. They are explicitly designed as a safety and policing tool to temporarily impair animals and people without causing permanent harm. 

Is it safe? 

Unless you have an allergy or medical condition, it's safe to enjoy hot sauces and chili peppers in regular quantities (1,2,3). 
However, you can upset your stomach and cause pain by consuming hot sauces, chili peppers, and foods with capsaicin-containing ingredients with a high SHU. While this isn't lethal in normal quantities, it can be incredibly uncomfortable. 
Capsaicin-containing sprays designed for safety use should only be used as intended and, while considered non-lethal, folks with breathing conditions should seek medical attention if they come into contact with these sprays.


The good news.

Hot sauces and chili peppers are a great way to add depth, flavor, and heat to foods. In our next post, we'll look at the potential health outcomes of chili pepper and hot sauce consumption


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