WHEN it comes to spicy food, there's more than one way to spell ``hot.'' Some spell it ``chili peppers'' - the world's favorite food enhancer.
Some spell it in terms of ``heat units'' - as in 2,500 to 4,000 heat units for cayenne peppers or 60,000 to 80,000 heat units for a good old tabasco.
You may even spell it 8-methyl-N-vannilyn-6-neneamide - the chemical name for capaicin (the active substance that makes chilis hot). It weighs in at 15 million heat units in its pure form.
Hot-food lovers among the membership of the American Association for the Advancement of Science spelled it all three ways when they filled a lecture hall to overflowing for a symposium on culinary heat during the AAAS annual meeting.
While the discussion focused on the fun of preparing and eating spicy foods and their relation to Louisiana Cajun culture, some speakers noted that chilis are serious global business. Worldwide, people consume more than 6 million metric tons a year of various members of the genus capsicum, which has 200-plus varieties among its 20 to 30 species. They range from the popular sweet bell pepper (0 heat units) to the hottest varieties (250,000 heat units). These heat units are a subjective, but standardized, rating assigned by trained taste panels.
Consulting anthropologist Molly Schuchat pointed out that the capsicums have become a better cash crop than cotton or wheat in many parts of the world as their consumption has grown rapidly over the past 10 to 20 years.