Chilli happens to be an integral part of the spice bank in any kitchen in India, being a regular culinary ingredient in the diets of the people. The 'hot' sensation one experiences during food consumption is due to presence of chilli in such preparations. Chilli can come in either fresh green form with limited shelf life or in dried red version with long life. While green chilli has not much of a commercial value for food industry, red chilli is processed into powder, blends with other spices or oleoresins for use by the food ingredient and pharmaceutical industries. The 'hot' sensation felt in the oral cavity is contributed by the capsaicinoids, numbering about half a dozen with varying 'heat' generating capacity. Pure capsaicin, a while crystalline or waxy substance of hydrophilic nature, is supposed to have a 'heat' potential measured in terms of Scoville Heat Units (SHU) and a milligram of capsaicin is equivalent to 15 SHUs.
India boasts of the hottest chilli in the world grown in Tezpur region, known locally as Naga Jolika capsicum with 8,55,000 SHUs while the next hottest is Red Savina Habanero with 5,77,000 SHUs. Guntur Chilli, commonly used in the South has a mere 53,250 SHUs! Jalepino Pepper, considered too hot for the western consumers has just 5000 SHUs. Capsaicin to gether with dihydrocapsaicin constitute 91% of the capsaicinoids in Chilli. Capsaicin and anthocyanins present in Chilli make it a popular industrial commodity and these two fractions can be separated with the latter used in food and allied industries as natural colorant. Besides the food use, capsaicin is a much sought after natural substance for its medication value as a counter irritant in controlling pain sensation in people suffering from peripheral neuropathy. Most of the pain balms available to day has capsaicin as the main ingredient at levels between 0.025% and 0.075%. Capsaicin is also being promoted as possible nutraceutical for preventing or treating some of the diseases like prostate cancer.
Capsaicin caught the attention of the world recently when it was approved for use in patients suffering from postherpetic neuralgia ( PHN) as an 8% patch, in the US and Europe. The treatment works by targeting certain pain nerves in the area of skin where pain is being experienced. Clinical studies have confirmed that PHN pain can be reduced for up to 12 weeks following a single 1-hour treatment. Up to 4 patches may be used and patches may be cut to conform to the size and shape of the painful area. It is a locally-acting, non-narcotic medication that is not known to cause drowsiness or any drug-drug interactions. Treatment can be repeated every 3 or more months as warranted by the return of pain and the simple Chili may become the symbol of a better quality life to millions of people suffering from the above ailment. Even more exciting is the possibility of using capsaicin as an analgesic to treat post-surgical and osteoarthritis through a single injection at the site of pain, giving relief for long periods. With Chilli having such healing powers, it may become the darling of the pharmaceutical industry with food industry becoming a minor user because of cost factors.
Advent of VNA, Vanillamide of n-Nonenoic Acid, better known as the synthetic capsaicin, is proving to be a stumbling block for the Chilli processors as it is available at a price, one fourth that of natural capsaicin with practically same properties. Though VNA is not being recommended as an ingredient for internal medicines, industry finds it much more economical for manufacturing ointments, creams and patches for use as a part of topical treatment protocol. Spice processors will have to change their strategy by concentrating on high SHU chilli varieties for processing and evolving new technologies that will drastically reduce production cost of natural capsaicin in the coming years.