TEXAS PLANT BREEDER DEVELOPS MILD HABANERO PEPPER

WESLACO — Texas pepper breeders have done it again — they’ve created a mild version of a pepper infamous for its heat. First came the mild Jalapeño; now comes a mild version of the habanero, considered by many to be the hottest pepper in the world.

The TAM Mild Habanero, the result of a five-year breeding program in South Texas, is now available to growers and should eventually find its way to kitchens, salad bars and salsas everywhere.

Like the TAM Mild Jalapeño, the new mild habanero is expected to entice the palates of consumers who may have shunned its culinary attributes for fear of its mouth-scorching, tear-jerking heat. This new version is much more user friendly, according to its creator.

“It’s a beautiful pepper with all the aroma and flavor of the traditional habanero but with just a fraction of the pungency,” said Dr. Kevin Crosby, a pepper breeder at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station at Weslaco. This is the same facility that released the world’s first mild jalapeño pepper in 1981.

Crosby began crossing peppers in 1999, hoping to develop a new product for growers in South Texas. Biting into pepper after pepper, Crosby and his technicians discarded thousands of breeding lines for being too hot or too bland, or for not exhibiting plant characteristics important to growers, including early maturity, high yields, properly shaped and sized pods, and resistance to insects and diseases.

But eventually, progeny from a cross between a hot Yucatan habanero and a heatless habanero from Bolivia began to show promise. Several generations and a few backcrosses later, the TAM Mild Habanero emerged.

Laboratory tests verified extremely low pungency.

“It’s got only 150 parts per million capsaicin, compared to the 12,700 parts per million in the original Yucatan habanero,” Crosby said, “It’s comparable to the very low heat you’d find in Anaheim peppers or Greek salad peppers.”

Capsaicin is the compound in peppers that gives them their heat. Depending on growing conditions, habaneros can have up to 35,000 parts per million capsaicin, some of the highest levels found in peppers that are consumed and far too hot for most connoisseurs to enjoy, Crosby said.

With a slightly more yellow skin than its hotter, darker orange cousins, the mild Habanero should do well among growers and consumers, Crosby said. “Demand for habaneros, for use in salsas and as a fresh market product, has been increasing the past five to 10 years, more so than the demand for other hot peppers,” he said. “And they’ve maintained their high value. Fresh market Jalapeños sell for 50 cents a pound; habaneros sell for between $3 and $4 a pound.”

The TAM Mild Habanero was approved for release to the public by Texas A&M’s Plant Release Committee, and a patent is pending from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Plant Variety Protection division.

How soon the new pepper will be available to consumers depends on how quickly commercial seed companies buy rights to the new pepper and increase seed for sale to growers.

“We also have several salsa companies who are interested in growing their own mild habaneros,” he said. “And we have seed companies who would like to see more growing data in regions other than Texas before they commit. But I suspect that by next spring consumers may finally get a chance to taste this new mild habanero.”

Two years ago Crosby’s pepper breeding program released the TAM Mild Jalapeño II, a better-yielding pepper than the original. And other new peppers are in the works, including a virus-resistant habanero and a bell pepper with enhanced amounts of antioxidants and other naturally occurring healthful compounds.

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