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Texas Ruins Everything

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I hadn’t really thought it about much until I read this article, but it seems true to me that jalapeños are less spicy than they used to be. I mean, it used to be that this was a hot pepper that you wanted to handle with some care, but today, they are kinda warm. I thought maybe it was me. But no, it turns out it is Texas A&M, a scourge upon humanity.

It’s not just you: jalapeño peppers are less spicy and less predictable than ever before. As heat-seekers chase ever-fiercer varieties of pepper—Carolina reapers, scorpions, ghosts—the classic jalapeño is going in the opposite direction. And the long-term “de-spicification” of the jalapeño is a deliberate choice, not the product of a bad season of weather.

This investigation began in my own kitchen. After months of buying heat-free jalapeños, I started texting chefs around Dallas to see if they were having the same experience. Many agreed. One prominent chef favors serranos instead. Regino Rojas of Revolver Taco Lounge suggested jalapeños are now “more veggie-like than chile.” Luis Olvera, owner of Trompo, said that jalapeños now have so much less heat that “I tell my staff, ‘I think my hands are just too damn sweet,’ because I can’t make salsa spicy enough anymore.”

To be fair, not everyone agreed with these views. One restaurateur wondered if jalapeños seem less hot because diners have become infatuated with habaneros and serranos. Wayne White, general manager at Hutchins BBQ, offered a middle ground. “I noticed during covid, the quality got really bad, but now to me they’re beautiful,” he said. “We did have a season during covid, you could tell they were pulling them too soon, they weren’t that ripe. But I ate a whole jalapeño the other day, just to eat one, and it lit me up.”

I searched the internet to see whether jalapeños are really getting milder, but only found shopping tips. Gardening websites offered savvier advice: that peppers grow hotter under stress. If they’re well-watered, they won’t produce as much capsaicin, the chemical that generates the sensation we know as spiciness. But even this explanation leaves unanswered questions. My sunny backyard, which produces ferocious peppers, is one thing. What about all the peppers in the grocery store?

Here’s the issue:

Most jalapeños go straight to factories, for canned peppers, pickled pepper rings, salsas, cream sauces, dressings, flavored chips and crackers, dips, sausages, and other prepared foods. For all those companies, consistency is key. Think about the salsa world’s “mild,” “medium,” and “hot” labels.

According to The Mexican Chile Pepper Cookbook by Dave DeWitt and José Marmolejo, 60 percent of jalapeños are sent to processing plants, 20 percent are smoke-dried into chipotles, and just 20 percent are sold fresh. Since big processors are the peppers’ main consumers, big processors get more sway over what the peppers taste like.

“It was a really big deal when breeders [told the industry], ‘hey, look, I have a low-heat jalapeño,’ and then a low-heat but high-flavor jalapeño,” Walker explained. “That kind of became the big demand for jalapeños—low heat jalapeños—because most of them are used for processing and cooking. [Producers] want to start with jalapeños and add oleoresin capsicum.”

Oleoresin capsicum is an extract from peppers, containing pure heat. It’s the active ingredient in pepper spray. It’s also the active ingredient, in a manner of speaking, for processed jalapeños. The salsa industry, Walker said, starts with a mild crop of peppers, then simply adds the heat extract necessary to reach medium and hot levels. She would know; she started her career working for a processed-food conglomerate.

“I’ve worked in peppers in my entire life,” she told me. “Jalapeños were originally prized as being a hot pepper grown in the field. When we were making hot sauce in my previous job, we had the same problem, that you couldn’t predict the heat. When you’re doing a huge run of salsa for shipment, and you want a hot label, medium label, mild label, it’s really important to predict what kind of heat you’ll get. We tried a statistical design from the fields, and it just didn’t work, because mother nature throws stressful events at you or, sometimes, does not bring stress.”

The standardization of the jalapeño was rapidly accelerated by the debut, about 20 years ago, of the TAM II jalapeño line, a reliably big, shiny, fleshy pepper that can grow up to six inches long—with little to no heat. TAM II peppers have become some of the most popular in the processing business. The 2002 paper in HortScience trumpeted TAM II’s benefits: virus resistance, absence of dark spots, longer fruit with thicker flesh, earlier maturation, and, compared to a variety of jalapeño called Grande, less than 10 percent of the spiciness. TAMs grown in one location measured in at 1620 Scoville units, while those at another came in at just 1080, which is milder than a poblano.

In conclusion, the paper’s authors wrote, “The large, low-pungency fruit of ‘TMJ II’ will make it equally suited for fresh-market and processing uses.”

DeWitt, writing in his solo book Chile Peppers: A Global History, says TAM became widespread in Texas after its introduction. “It was much milder and larger than the traditional jalapeños, and genes of this mild pepper entered the general jalapeño pool. Cross-breeding caused the gene pool to become overall larger and milder.”

Since I know you’re wondering who the inventors are: the clue is in the name TAM II. The hot (but also not hot) new jalapeño is an invention of Texas A&M University. Yes, Aggies took the spice out of life.

Yes they did.

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