Aside from being a delightful addition to your evening meals, capsaicin - that’s the compound present in chilli peppers responsible for their spice - has a lot of different uses. They span from medicinal use as a topical anaesthetic, population control, insect repellant - to name a few!
Capsaicin has been a powerful ingredient on our culture for thousands of years. The peppers have been cultivated in South America for as long as history can record. The medicinal benefits of peppers have been recorded for millennia. In recent times, science has uncovered more uses for capsaicin that the ancient cultures might not have considered.
Here are some details on the uses of capsaicin.
Capsaicin has been extensively studied for its medicinal value. It can be used as a topical anaesthetic in the form of cream. It’s an anti-inflammatory agent that can reduce the symptoms of certain diseases. It helps speed up the metabolism so people can burn more calories. It also gives the immune system a healthy boost.
Capsaicin can even prevent cancer of the colon. It helps the body produce mucus, which can fight against damage done to tissues of the gastrointestinal tract. This can prevent cancer and ulcers!
Capsaicin used for population control
That’s right! Did you know why peppers spray is called pepper spray? I’m sure you can take a wild guess.
Pepper spray is a capsaicin based spray used in riot control. When capsaicin comes into contact with the eyes, nasal passageways, or lungs, it creates a burning sensation. This pain is often much worse than the burn you feel when sprinkling some cayenne pepper on your dinner.
There are reports of pepper spray reaching up to five million units on the Scoville scale. The Scoville scale is used to measure the intensity of capsicum spice. A million units on the Scoville scale is an incredible amount of heat - up until a couple years ago, the bhut jolokia pepper was considered the hottest pepper in the world. It’s only a million units on the Scoville scale and, trust me, getting a load of bhut jolokia peppers to the eyes hurts.
There are lower grades of pepper spray available for commercial purchase. These range from a few hundred thousand Scovilles up to about a million. The higher-grade, five-million Scoville unit, burn-your-face-off varieties? That’s what the police like to use. Pepper spray is formally known as oleoresin capsicum, named after the compound that gives you the burn. Pepper spray sounds a little more innocent, though, so the name stuck.
Capsaicin in pest repellents
Capsaicin is used in a number of pest repellants. Surprisingly few of these are actual bug repellants. It's not proven that capsaicin is responsible for the repellency of insect repellants, however, it’s still commonly used as an ingredient.
Most pest repellents that feature capsaicin are meant to deter animals - voles, bears, violent dogs, and the like. Most animals are just as sensitive to capsaicin as humans are, and certainly don’t like having it sprayed at their faces.