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Borderlands: Hot Peppers: They're Not Just for Eating

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Hot Peppers: They're Not Just for Eating

By Michelle Stelter (Article first published in Vol. 9, 1991) 

 Chile Update 2017

Chiles rellenos. Food coloring. Aerosol repellents. Medicine. What do they all have in common? Chile peppers. That’s right, chile peppers. Contrary to popular belief, chile peppers aren’t good only for eating. In fact, they have a wide range of non-food uses.

The chile pepper belongs to a species of plant called the Capsicum annum. The food processing industry uses the capsicum for its natural red coloring in many different foods including meat products, cheeses, salad dressing, gelatin desserts and other processed foods.

When chickens are fed red pimento pepper waste, they lay eggs with a dark yellow-red yolk, which have a higher rate of hatchability. When processed, such chickens have a yellowish skin.

Aside from color, the pepper’s ability to stir up the senses has allowed it to be used in pest control and self-defense.

Chile pepper mixtures can be used to keep some insects and even some animals from destroying a garden. Peppers also can be used as a base for a homemade insect repellent. Noted chile expert and author Jean Andrews provides the following recipe: Process thoroughly in a blender two tablespoons cayenne pepper, two cloves garlic, four onions and one quart water. Then add two gallons water and two tablespoons Ivory soap flakes. Spray on plants.

In some areas of the country, wild animals wreak havoc on gardens and even attack humans when natural food supplies are low. One man in Montana invented a bear repellent, which has a chile base. This repellent actually saved his life when he met a belligerent polar bear in the Arctic. 

While border residents do not have to worry about bears, chile mixtures can be used to ward off people as well as garden pests and other unwanted animals. In fact, chile is the main ingredient in some forms of aerosols than cause temporary blindness when sprayed directly into the eyes. Because of its chile base, the spray causes an extremely painful burning sensation. U.S. mail carriers and bicyclists now carry this chile extract to ward off hostile dogs.

The chile pepper has even found a home in the medical world. As early as the 1930s, doctors described capsaicin, the heat-producing chemical found in chile, as a powerful local stimulant that, unlike others, caused no reddening of the skin.

Because of this property, capsaicin is used in some creams and ointments to help numb the pain of herpes zoster, commonly known as “shingles,” cutting off the skin’s nerve conductors. 

Other medications containing capsaicin have been developed to soothe the pain that patients who have had a limb amputated often experience even though that limb is no longer there, a phenomenon known as “phantom-limb.” Capsaicin is also being touted as relieving pain associated with rheumatoid
and osteoarthritis.

Experiments on the pepper have shown that jalapeños contain an anticoagulant that helps in preventing blood clots that can eventually lead to heart attacks.

The pepper is an abundant source of vitamins as well. It is rich in vitamin A and B complex, and it contains more vitamin C than citrus fruits.

The chile pepper is one of the most consumed foods on the border, but most people are unaware of its many non-food uses. The pepper has found its way into food processing plants, gardens, purses, hospitals and research laboratories. Who knows where it will show up next?

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