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NMSU Scientists Release Ultra Red Chile Pepper

LAS CRUCES - Chile breeders at New Mexico State University have developed a gem of a new chile variety that produces the reddest pigment commercially available. 'NuMex Garnet,' a paprika chile for natural food coloring, was unveiled today at the 20th Annual 2002 Chile Conference here.



NMSU research specialist Stephanie Walker holds a newly developed paprika chile pepper that produces the reddest pigment commercially available. Red coloring extracted from paprika powder is used in consumer products ranging from cosmetics to processed meats. (02/04/2002) NMSU agricultural communications photo by Norman Martin

"It could be a big step forward for the industry," said Louis Biad, the founder of Biad Chili Co., a 40-year-old chile processing facility 10 miles north of Las Cruces.

Throughout the world, red coloring is commonly extracted from paprika powder and used in a stunning range of consumer products from cosmetics to processed meats.

"Just about any type of product that needs to be red can be colored with chile," said Stephanie Walker, an NMSU research specialist who conducted most of the new variety's field trials. "It's used in lipsticks, bologna, even mayonnaise."

Use of chile as a natural coloring agent began almost two decades ago, when the federal government banned a widely used red dye because of cancer risks. In 1990, an NMSU research team began a chile breeding program aimed at developing a chile variety better suited for the color extraction industry.

"Color extractors need high-color paprika to make their production process more efficient," said Paul Bosland, a professor and the director of Chile Pepper Institute at NMSU. "The higher the color, the more cost-effective it is for them."

The 'NuMex Garnet' program began by taking a locally grown chile with high red color and crossing it with a variety with better growing traits. Seven more years were spent refining the selection, and the last three years involved improving color, yield and growth viability in different growing environments. Field research took place at NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Artesia, and near Las Cruces at the Fabian Garcia Research Center and Leyendecker Plant Science Research Center.

While the new chile is deep red, it packs no tongue-burning heat. Capsaicinoids, those natural substances that produce watery eyes, runny nose and a burning sensation in the mouth, are at undetectable levels. Pungency is unwanted for colorings.

"Oh, sure the peppers are edible," Bosland said with a smile. "They're just not going to burn you very much."

A common way to test pungency is the 'bite the chile' taste test. While quick and cost effective, the method can leave testers in some pain, Bosland said. NMSU's chile researchers prefer a more scientific approach, high performance liquid chromatography, a process that extracts the chemicals responsible for pungency from a dried, ground sample, he said.

Another feature of the new variety is its adaptability to machine harvesting, a characteristic that is increasingly important in New Mexico as labor costs and shortages continue to pound the state's $200 million chile industry. When red chile is machine harvested, is critical that pods detach from the rest of the plant, which stays in the field.

"If it's hard to get off the plant, you're going to get more trash, and a messy, sticky, leafy product," Walker said. "At this point, it looks like Garnet will harvest very well." One point favoring the new chile is a dispersed pod set, which spreads the peppers throughout the canopy, making them easier for the machine to reach, she said.

While 'NuMex Garnet' has been officially released, it won't be in growers' hands for another two years. This year, breeders' seed will be grown to build a foundation seed supply for distribution through the New Mexico Crop Improvement Association. The association provides seed to producers.

New Mexico, America's chile capital, has plenty of competition worldwide among paprika producers, especially from India, China, Africa and South America. "There is so much paprika produced in other areas of the world that we felt the need to increase the value of the crop grown here," Walker said. This value-added approach of increasing red color content and dry matter saves color processors cash because they don't have to spend as much money drying peppers and extracting the color, she said.

"Numex Garnet is impressive," said Vince Hernandez, who has studied the variety in the field and acts as a consultant for Radium Springs-based Rezolex, one of the nation's only two chile color processing plants, located 12 miles north of Las Cruces. "It should make us a little more competitive."