Scientists Say: Capsaicin | Science News for Students

Scientists Say: Capsaicin

This molecule provides the burn when you eat a pepper
Sep 11, 2017 — 6:50 am EST
These peppers contain capsaicin, a chemical that gives us a burning sensation.

Capsaicin (noun, “Cap-SAY-ih-sin”)

This is a molecule that is found in chili peppers. The chemical’s official name is 8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide. When capsaicin comes into contact with the tongue or skin, it causes a burning sensation. Plants use capsaicin as a defense, to keep mammals from eating the pepper fruits. But people who eat peppers often find that burn adds extra allure to nachos, pizza and other foods.

In a sentence

It might burn a little, but capsaicin on the skin can also soothe pain by starting a chemical cascade that helps the brain ignore the hurt.

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Power Words

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capsaicin     The compound in spicy chili peppers that imparts a burning sensation on the tongue or skin.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

chili pepper     A small vegetable pod often used in cooking to make food hot and spicy.

defense     (in biology) A natural protective action taken or chemical response that occurs when a species confront predators or agents that might harm it. (adj. defensive)

molecule     An electrically neutral group of atoms that represents the smallest possible amount of a chemical compound. Molecules can be made of single types of atoms or of different types. For example, the oxygen in the air is made of two oxygen atoms (O2), but water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O).