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Here’s Why Jalapeño Peppers Are Less Spicy Than Ever

Throw out those bogus shopping tips about pepper size. Decades of deliberate planning created a less-hot jalapeño.
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Photo of jalapeño peppers at a Dallas grocery store.
Jalapeño peppers are bigger, shinier, and prettier. But what about the flavor? Brian Reinhart

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?

Clearly, a real investigation was required. So I called Stephanie Walker, extension vegetable specialist at New Mexico State University, advisory board member of that university’s Chile Pepper Institute, and chair of the 2023 New Mexico Chile Conference.

“Other complaints have come my way,” Walker said at the start of our phone call. This turned out to be a comedic understatement: she has a massive, existential complaint about the state of the chile pepper industry. I got on the phone expecting to hear a prosaic story of weather patterns shifting, unusual rains in pepper-growing regions, or the spread of greenhouses. I would not have been surprised if she validated Rojas’ theory: that jalapeños are now grown to look pretty, shiny, and big, regardless of flavor. “Pesticides and other enhancing farming elements make them look beautiful but not really spicy,” Rojas suggested to me.

People lost a lot of interest in tomatoes for a long time until heirlooms came back. Now we have the same thing with peppers.

Stephanie Walker, New Mexico State University Chile Pepper Institute

There’s truth to all these theories, but Walker says they are only secondary factors.

“As more growers have adopted drip irrigation, more high-tech farming tools to grow the peppers, they’ll tend to be milder,” Walker told me first, as a sort of throat-clearing exercise before the real explanation. “But there’s more to it than that.”

The truth is more like a vast industrial scheme to make the jalapeño more predictable—and less hot.

The Vast Jalapeño Conspiracy

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.”

Photo of jalapeño pepper fritters from the Texas State Fair.
Would this jalapeño fritter from the 2015 State Fair of Texas taste less spicy if it was made today?

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.

Picture of a barbecue tray from Hutchins BBQ, including a bacon-wrapped jalapeño pepper.
A tray from Hutchins BBQ, including a Texas Twinkie. Bret Redman

And yes, “II” means it’s a sequel. The original TAM came out much earlier and was profiled in a 1983 article in the Christian Science Monitor. At the time, the A&M scientists estimated 800 acres were being grown nationally, and they told reporter Daniel Benedict that there was plenty of room left on the market for spicier stuff. (“For the hot-pepper lover, there’s something for him already.”)

After 40 years of the milder pepper enjoying increased popularity, virus resistance, higher yields, and a shiny new sequel, hotter pre-TAM jalapeños appear to have lost substantial ground. Exact statistics on planting demand are hard to obtain because growers do not want to tip off seed suppliers on how to price their products.

As the invention of TAM I and II suggests, “jalapeño” as a name does not connote a single breed or genetic line. There are varieties of jalapeño as there are of tomatoes. Mitla peppers are at the opposite end of the scale from TAMs, sometimes reaching 8000 Scoville units. (The A&M paper derides Mitlas since they are often wonkily curved, and need more culling.)

In my interviews around Dallas, I learned many restaurateurs don’t know what breed their supplier is offering, or even that various breeds exist. At Hutchins BBQ, which employs four people full-time preparing around 7,000 jalapeños a week for its iconic brisket-stuffed Texas Twinkies, suppliers drop off peppers and the barbecue joint sorts through, picking the specimens they want and returning the rest. Hutchins deseeds the peppers to reduce any remaining heat.

For heat seekers, Walker recommends Mitla and Early jalapeños; they’re called “Early” not because they were picked early but because, as a breed, they grow quickly and are well-adapted to cooler environments.

First heirloom tomatoes, next heirloom peppers?

Walker compares the current state of the pepper industry with the world of American tomatoes, which were bred for hardiness in shipping, firmness, and canning. Only recently has an heirloom tomato revolution tried to cater directly to home cooks and chefs with tomato breeds that emphasize flavor and juiciness first.

“People lost a lot of interest in tomatoes for a long time until heirlooms came back,” Walker said. “Now we have the same thing with peppers. There’s a place for people to embrace heirloom peppers, the way that we have with tomatoes.”

For gardeners and small growers, the Chile Pepper Institute sells seeds but results will always be complicated, since a hot, dry summer can turn even TAM jalapeños into weapons, and a cool, wet season will result in pampered plants. But how can you find hotter peppers if you are shopping, or looking to supply your restaurant?

Walker’s best advice is to lobby suppliers and grocers for specific pepper breeds. Ask a produce manager or a supplier if you can get Early or Mitla peppers, or if the store can label its pepper breeds. And ignore the bogus factoids spread by many online shopping guides. I found a Rachael Ray Show article claiming that bigger peppers are always spicier than smaller ones—which contradicts everything I had just learned about TAMs being deliberately engineered for size. Walker called that tip “misinformation.”

If lobbying your grocery managers sounds like a futile effort, look at the changes that have rippled through the tomato industry as breeders re-embrace heirlooms. Or look at the widespread adoption of a less stinky breed of Brussels sprouts, scientifically developed through a similar selective breeding process, which turned that vegetable from a punchline into a favorite.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for growers who really want to get into specializing in some of these heirloom varieties,” Walker said.

Let’s hope some farmers are reading this and yearning for the days when a jalapeño was a reliable source of spice. Those days can return.

Author

Brian Reinhart

Brian Reinhart

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Brian Reinhart became D Magazine's dining critic in 2022 after six years of writing about restaurants for the Dallas Observer and the Dallas Morning News.
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