a red, yellow, and orange bell pepper

Capsicum vs. Capsaicin

Capsicum and capsaicin are similar terms that are often confused with one another — but they actually refer to completely different things. Both terms relate to chili peppers but in different ways!

Read on to learn the difference between capsicum and capsaicin, and what each word means.

Capsicum vs. capsaicin — differences between the two

At the most basic level, capsicum is the name for the genus of plants that includes chili peppers, while capsaicin is the active ingredient in chili peppers that gives them their heat. So, when you’re talking about the capsicum vs capsaicin, you’re really talking about the plant vs the active ingredient.

A deep-dive into capsicum: what is a capsicum?

Capsicum plants are shrubs belonging to the nightshade family — we commonly know them as pepper plants! In some parts of the world, people refer to chili peppers simply as “capsicum”. This is a common way that people in the UK and Europe refer to bell peppers.

While there are a number of different species belonging to the genus capsicum, only five are the type of domesticated chili peppers we’re used to seeing in stores:

  1. Capsicum Annuum
  2. Capsicum Baccatum
  3. Capsicum Chinense
  4. Capsicum Frutescens
  5. Capsicum Pubescens

What is capsaicin?

Capsaicin is a chemical compound (a toxin) commonly found in the fruit of most pepper plants. It was first isolated in 1878 in crystalline form. Nowadays in addition to being the naturally-occurring component in chili peppers that give them their heat, it is also used medically as a topical analgesic, as a supplement to aid in weight loss, and as an extract in commercial food production.

Capsaicin is also found in pepper spray, bear spray, and it is sometimes used as a pest deterrent.

Similarities between capsaicin and capsicum

You’ll notice that capsaicin and capsicum look a lot alike. Both refer to concepts around chili peppers, capsicum being the pepper itself and capsaicin being the active compound found in peppers that make them spicy. It’s thought that the words are both derived from Latin capsa, which means “box”, referring to the shape of chili peppers.

Using capsicum in a sentence

  • Jalapeños belong to the genus capsicum.
  • Did you buy any capsicum from the grocery store?
  • This plant is a capsicum, but it’s not one of the domesticated species we’re familiar with.

Using capsaicin in a sentence

  • Ghost peppers must have a high concentration of capsaicin because they are so spicy.
  • Capsaicin is what makes pepper spray so irritating to your eyes.
  • In some countries, it’s illegal for pure capsaicin to be sold as a food item.

So, while capsicum and capsaicin are very similar words with related meanings, they refer to different things.

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