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Posted November 22, 2004 by Nick Lindauer in Peppers
 
 

Lab-designed chile pepper ready to eat without the heat


SCIENTISTS IN TEXAS TAME THE HABANERO; SOME WONDER WHY

By Ralph Blumenthal

New York Times

WESLACO, Texas – It’s a burning issue for some hot-pepper lovers: Whatever possessed Kevin M. Crosby to create the mild habanero?

For Crosby, a plant geneticist at the Texas A&M Agricultural Experiment Station here near the Mexican border, the answer is simple: “I’m not going to take away the regular habanero. You can still grow and eat that, if you want to kill yourself.”

But for those who prize the fieriest domesticated capsicum for its taste and health-boosting qualities, Crosby and the research station in the Rio Grande Valley have developed and patented the TAM Mild Habanero, with less than half the bite of the familiar jalapeño (which A&M scientists also previously produced in a milder version).

With worldwide pepper consumption on the rise, according to industry experts, the new variety — a heart-shaped nugget bred in benign golden yellow to distinguish it from the alarming orange original, the common Yucatan habanero — is beginning to reach store shelves, to the delight of processors and the research station, which stands to earn unspecified royalties if the new pepper catches on.

“I love it,” said Josh Ruiz, a local farmer whose pickers this week filled some 200 boxes of the peppers to be sold to grocers for about $35 a box. “It yields good and I’m able to eat it.” As for the Yucatan habanero, he said, “My stomach just can’t take it.”

By comparison, if a regular jalapeño scores between 5,000 and 10,000 units on the Scoville scale of pepper hotness based on the amount of the chemical capsaicin (cap-SAY-sin), and a regular habanero averages around 300,000 to 400,000 units, A&M’s mild version registers a tepid 2,300, or barely one-hundredth of its coolest formidable namesake. A bell pepper, by the way, scores zero.

Not everyone hails the breakthrough. Crosby, 33, a native Texan and a distant relative of the crooner Bing, said “chili pepper fanatics” have called with rude questions about what he was thinking and why he was wasting his time. A Mexican voiced complete bewilderment. Why, he asked Crosby, would you want a habanero that’s not hot?

Crosby said he sympathized. He had, after all, seen Mayans in the Yucatan eating their way through plates of habaneros dipped in salt. “I’ve heard it said it’s addictive,” he said.

But he said most people should not try this at home, not even with the most potent antidote at the ready, ice cream. (Milk is second best.)

The center’s director, Jose M. Amador, said people in Mexico had called wondering if A&M was out to “ruin” the habanero, and asking, “What are you, crazy?” There was even a move afoot in Mexico, he said, to trademark the Yucatan habanero in the same way, say, that the French protect champagne and cognac, but he shrugged off its prospects.

Actually, Amador said, he came from Havana, for which the pepper is named, but had never eaten it there, Cuban cuisine not being known for its spiciness. With the same confusion, Crosby said, the habanero’s scientific name became Capsicum chinense, although the pepper undoubtedly reached China via the tropical Americas.

Last week, Crosby was among 225 scientists, growers and processors who gathered at the 17th International Pepper Conference in Naples, Fla. Business was booming, a conference announcement said: “In recent years, interest and demand for peppers has increased dramatically worldwide, and peppers are no longer considered a minor crop in the global market.”

Specialty peppers, including hot peppers, are a particularly fast-growing part of the market.

Crosby, who delivered a paper on breeding peppers for enhanced health through plant chemicals like carotenoids, flavonoids and ascorbic acid, said capsaicin was being studied as a stroke preventive. Other chemicals in peppers are potent antioxidants and offer protection against macular degeneration.

“It’s a pretty fruit,” said Crosby, taking a bite and chewing without flinching. “It’s got the flavor but it doesn’t kill you.”


Nick Lindauer

 
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