Feelin’ Hot, Hot, Hot: Climate Change and Spicy Food

It is tough being a freelance writer. You have to be pitching stories left and right, grabbing interviews whenever you can and literally dance for every drink, every lunch and every story. Meanwhile, any jerk with a blog could come along and steal your job. Your life is best defined by these three words: Dance, monkey, dance!

Or so I’m told. While freelancing can be a cold and cruel world, being the friend of a freelancer is awesome. You end up tagging along to random strange locations (Fermentation Festival, anyone?) where people are talking about weird things (colon health!) and doing unusual things (cedar chip enzyme bath? Sure!).

While your friend is hunting down photographs of kombucha mothers and pygmy goats, as their “date” you get to surreptitiously stuff your face with complementary goat salami, and sip sherry while Sean Lennon performs his dad’s “Oh Yoko!” — ok, that was a little freaky.

As a diligent friend, you put up with these unusual encounters, because, like, what else are you going to do with your time?

One of the best of these “friend missions” involved an encounter with hot sauce. Or I should say, many hot sauces. A certain writer-friend had been given the mission of taste-testing 10 of the spiciest hot sauces on the market. These were not simple “five alarm” sauces – please, if you are going to truly have a hot sauce you wouldn’t give it such a clichéd name. We are talking hot sauces with names involving major players in the underworld, outlandish scatological terminology and references to BDSM activities that I’ve only heard about on the Savage Love. These were not meant to be shared in polite company.

After a few hours of nose-dripping, eye-watering fun, we had chosen the tastiest and hottest of the bunch. We were no doubt experiencing the spiciest of the spicy, but the question was clear, could we go even hotter?

It turns out, that with climate change the answer is, Hell yeah!

In a higher carbon dioxide environment, habanero plants (you know, the really f*ing hot ones) have more peppers. Those peppers are larger and when ripe, they have more capsaicinoids (which includes capsaicin – the hot stuff — and a couple other secondary metabolites) (1). Since capsaicin is thought to be a deterrent to herbivores (hello bugs!) and fungal infection, this could be a good thing for both hot sauce-enthusiasts and plants alike.

Moreover, while other chili plants (which are a little different from habaneros) may be more susceptible to bacterial infection in a warmer climate, when combining a warmer and higher carbon dioxide environment they are not more susceptible to fungal infection (2). Could it be that higher CO2 is increasing capsaicin and other defensive compounds, thereby making the plants a little bit better at protecting themselves from fungal infection?

Eh, possibly. We have just entered what is called “hypothesis-ville”. It’s somewhere between “maybe-town” and “perhaps-square”.

If you are looking for a cool experiment, this could be your next USDA grant. You just need a panel of Texan scientists to read your proposal and a couple freelance writers to follow you around to document the whole thing. Who knows? If it works out, you might find me sitting in the back of your very first press conference on the topic. I’ll be the one stuffing those complimentary donuts into my pockets.

Because, that’s what friends are for.

Further Reading:
(1) Enrichment of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases the capsaicinoids content in Habanero peppers (Capsicum chinense Jacq.)
(2) Elevated CO2 and Temperature Effects on the Incidence of Four Major Chili Pepper Diseases

Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is the Programs & Policy Director at the National Center for Science Education. She wanted to thank her friends who answered the call of what she should write her future blog posts about. The suggestions included: cheese, vacations, fun, coastal real estate, mushrooms, freshwater fishing, schizophrenia, motorcycles, breakfast, dates, and sex determination (link). Some of those may be easier than others to connect to climate change.

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