May 22, 1998 If you like your peppers hot, don't pick them before or after their time. A new chemistry analysis confirms that the amount of hot flavor in the pepper is determined by how long the pepper has been growing before it is harvested, according to a report in the May 20 Web edition of the Journal of Agricultural & Food Chemistry, published by the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society. And waiting too long may be as bad as picking them too soon, the researcher says, since the peak of flavor is short-lived and precisely timed. For Piquin peppers, the critical growing time to insure peak flavor is 40 days, and for De árbol and Habañero peppers it's 50 days, says Elhadi M. Yahia of the Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro in Querétaro, Mexico.
The hot flavor of chile peppers is caused by the presence of a group of seven closely-related compounds called capsaicinoids. Although these compounds are present throughout the life of the pepper, the amount increases as the pepper matures until a maximum is reached, and then decreases rapidly, according to Yahia. The degradation of the capsaicinoids is caused by naturally-occurring compounds called peroxidases. Yahia and Margarita Conteras-Padilla measured the concentrations of both capsaicinoids and peroxidases as different pepper plants aged. "If we can understand how capsaicinoids break down, this could be a first step in reducing these losses for those cultures where chile peppers are of great importance," Yahia says.
A nonprofit organization with a membership of more than 155,000 chemists and chemical engineers, the American Chemical Society publishes scientific journals, convenes major research conferences, and provides educational and career programs in chemistry. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus Ohio.
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