[Krampf Experiment, Boiling Point

Experiments experiments at krampf.com
Mon Oct 18 13:07:26 EDT 2010

Robert Krampf's Experiment of the Week
Boiling Point

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Greetings from Eagle Nest Ranch, just outside Kanab, Utah.  This has been such a whirlwind tour that I have gotten behind on posting, but I am getting enough photos and footage to make it up to you.  

This Week's Experiment: Hot Peppers

This week's experiment comes from my adventures in making salsa for the What is Science video.  Our hosts, Paula and Eldon Swapp gave us some fresh tomatoes and peppers from their garden, and their friends, Buck and Linda Brown gave us even more peppers.  Since I needed some video of me making salsa for the What is Science video, I decided to taste some of the different peppers.  Along the way, I got some first hand experience in the chemistry of hot peppers.

To try this, you will need:  

- a fresh, hot pepper.  
- a knife
- a cutting board
- a glass of water
- a glass of milk

WARNING!  The juice from the hot peppers can be very irritating to skin and eyes.  Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly with soap before touching your eyes, nose, or other sensitive skin.

You can use any kind of hot pepper, but a jalapeno would probably be a good start.  It is large enough for easy dissection, and not so hot that it will cause too much distress if you are sensitive to the hot sensations.  In this experiment, we are going to feel some of that sensation of heat.

Wash the pepper, and examine the outside.  It is covered by a smooth, waxy skin which helps keep insects and other creatures out, while keeping water and other chemicals in.  That is the pepper's first line of defense.

Place the pepper on the cutting board, and cut it in half longways, from top to bottom.  Inside, you will see the reason that the plant makes the pepper; seeds.  The pepper is the protective cover for the developing seeds.  But how can a thin layer of plant tissue offer much protection?

How you do the next part of this experiment will depend on how much you like hot peppers.  If you like hot peppers, or if you are adventurous, carefully cut a piece from the bottom of the pepper.  Why the bottom?  Because the bottom is often (but not always) milder than the top.  Carefully avoid the white membranes, especially around the seeds, as they are usually the hottest part.  Cautiously, touch the piece of pepper to your tongue.  Don't bite it or chew it yet.  Just one touch of the tongue.  Wait a few seconds, to see if you get a hot sensation.  

If you don't feel any hot sensation, then you may want to bite the piece of pepper and chew a SMALL bit.  That should give you some of the hot sensation we are looking for.

Once you feel the heat on your tongue, pay attention to how it feels.  It feels hot, but the actual temperature of your tongue has not increased.  Instead, one or more chemicals from a group called capsaicinoids are stimulating the nerves that usually tell you that something is hot.  The more the capsaicinoids stimulate your nerves, the hotter the pepper seems.  Some peppers have more of these chemicals than others, which is why some are hotter than others.  That is also why the white membranes inside the pepper are hotter.  They have a higher concentration of capsaicinoids.  

If you are not adventurous enough to taste a hot pepper, you can still get that sensation of heat.  Take the small piece of pepper and gently rub it on a small area of the back of your hand.  Wait a minute or so.  You should start to feel the same sensation of heat.  If not, try a piece of pepper from closer to the top.  Be cautious, because the sensation can get quite hot.  After cutting all the peppers for my salsa, my fingers felt almost sunburned for several hours.  Now you can see why capsaicinoids are used in creams for arthritis and sore muscles.  The sensation of heat helps them feel better.  If the heat gets too strong, try washing your hands with some cooking oil, and then using soap.  

OK, so why do peppers produce capsaicinoids?  Imagine that you are a deer or a rabbit, looking for something tasty to eat.  If you took a big bite of a hot pepper, do you think you would eat any more?  Probably not.  Most animals leave the hot peppers alone, looking for other food that does not have such a strong, chemical protection.  Still, there are animals that eat them, especially birds, which do not seem to be bothered by the heat.

By now, you may be ready to get rid of the hot taste, so take a drink of water.  Did that help?  Probably not.  capsaicinoids are not water soluble, so the water does not carry them away.  Instead, capsaicinoids dissolve in oils and alcohols.  Try taking a drink of milk.  Swish it around in your mouth before you swallow.  You should notice a noticeable decrease in the heat.  The fats in the milk dissolve some of the capsaicinoids and carry them away.  You might also try the same thing with skim milk.  Since it has much less fat, do you think it would work as well?   What if you tried something with more fat, such as a nice, tasty bowl of ice cream?  Now that is an experiment worth trying!

Have a wonder-filled week.

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Copyright © 2010. Robert Krampf's Science Education
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