A variety of spices in life

2006-12-26

in Daily updates, Geek stuff, Science

Deities and guns, Pitt Rivers Museum

Two things that I did not know previously about spices, but learned while eating white peppercorns purchased at the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul, during a break from reading this evening:

The difference between black and white peppercorns is somewhat similar to the differing means by which white and red wine are produced. Black peppercorns are the dried fruit of Piper nigrum, a flowering vine. The colour is the product of browning enzymes released from the fruit’s flesh through the application of heat, after picking and before drying. The important odour-contributing chemicals present in black pepper are part of a class of molecules called terpenes. White peppercorns, by contrast, are the product of fruit that has been soaked, decomposed, or otherwise removed – leaving only the seed to be dried.

This strikes me as somewhat similar to how red wine is produced from juice that includes skins, seeds, and stems – whereas white wine has such elements filtered out. The chemical result of their inclusion (called maceration) produces the tannins that give flavour to red wine. Those who are restricted to the appreciation of the cheaper examples of both varieties might find it useful to know that red wines contain more congeners than whites, and thus are more likely to leave you feeling rotten the next day (though the relevance of these molecules to the situation seems to be disputed; some argue that hypoglycemia, dehydration, and vitamin B12 deficiency are more to blame). Red wines also include tyramine, an additional metabolic toxin absent in whites.

One molecule mentioned frequently on this blog is capsaicin: the hydrophobic, colorless, odorless that makes chili peppers spicy. It does this by virtue of stimulating vanilloid receptors of subtype 1, normally sensitive to heat and abrasion. I thought that normal table pepper relied upon the same substance, but it actually depends on a molecule called Piperine, potentially notable for the fact that it interferes with biochemical pathways relevant to drug metabolism.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous December 26, 2006 at 11:01 pm

The warm familiarity with which you write about brain-altering chemicals makes me wonder if you are in the right field.

Milan December 26, 2006 at 11:05 pm

We’re only just reaching the cusp of beginning to understand how the brain works, and how it is affected by outside forces.

While the emergence of that area of science is not something that I expect to participate in, it is definitely something I will watch with rapt attention.

Milan October 31, 2007 at 10:28 am

Hot spice used to cool pain
Chemical from chili peppers is being tested on surgical wounds

“Bite a hot pepper, and after the burn your tongue goes numb. The Baltimore Sun reports that Capsaicin, the chemical that gives chili peppers their fire, is being dripped directly into open wounds during highly painful operations, bathing surgically exposed nerves in a high enough dose to numb them for weeks. As a result patients suffer less pain and require fewer narcotic painkillers as they heal. ‘We wanted to exploit this numbness,’ says Dr. Eske Aasvang, a pain specialist who is testing the substance. Capsaicin works by binding to C fibers called TRPV1, the nerve endings responsible for long-lasting aching and throbbing pain. Experiments are under way involving several hundred patients undergoing various surgeries, including knee and hip replacements using an ultra-purified version of Capsaicin to avoid infection. Volunteers are under anesthesia so they don’t feel the initial burn.”

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