Exotic Pepper Project adds spice to Rutgers


Exotic Pepper Project adds spice to Rutgers

<p>&nbsp;Peppers are an important staple in the Nigerian diet due to the health benefits they bring and their spicy taste. In the United States though, Albert Ayeni, assistant professor in the Department of Plant Biology, said spice was lacking in its cuisine.&nbsp;</p>

 Peppers are an important staple in the Nigerian diet due to the health benefits they bring and their spicy taste. In the United States though, Albert Ayeni, assistant professor in the Department of Plant Biology, said spice was lacking in its cuisine. 


The Exotic Pepper Project at Rutgers aims to incorporate diverse and nutrient-filled foods into common day food shopping. 

The program was established by Dr. Albert Ayeni and Dr. Thomas Orton, both professors in the Department of Plant Biology.

Ayeni always had a passion for peppers, but his inspiration peaked when he first came to the United States. He was originally from Nigeria, where peppers were a huge staple in the country’s diet due to their health benefits and spicy taste. 

When he came to the United States to further his agricultural education at Cornell University, he noticed most American foods did not have any spice. 

“I wanted to add (spice) to our diet because it's healthier and has great flavor,” Ayeni said.

Orton, on the other hand, began his love for peppers while working in the private sector with plants. He then came to Rutgers and was fascinated by the wide range of plant and fruit diversity. 

“Ayeni rekindled my interest in 2009 when he showed me a highly variable pepper population from Africa growing in an Atlantic County farmer’s field,” he said.

Thus, the Exotic Pepper Project was born. Both professors said they valued the diversity and nutrition peppers could bring to New Jersey.

New Jersey is especially known for its large range of agriculture compared to other states, Ayeni said. There has also been a demand for specialty foods in ethnic populations near urban centers, and New Jersey’s farmers are responding as a call to action.

The Exotic Pepper Project grows other specialty crops: pumpkin habanero peppers, okra, red leaf spinach, roselle and tagonots. In particular, okra is a very unique, high-demand crop coveted by ethnically diverse farmer markets, Ayeni said. It has the benefit of growing in the warmer months compared to many other spinaches that cultivate in the colder seasons.

As for the other crops, the red leaf spinach is cheaper to purchase during the off-season of regular spinach. The roselle’s leaves and fruit are both edible and delicious. As for tagonots, they are sweet and chewy as well as an excellent source of carbohydrates and fiber, Ayeni said.

“Each food has many health benefits and we're continuing to develop all five so people can see their value, adapt to these exotic foods and incorporate them into their regular diets,” he said.

The project also offers an internship program called Entrepreneurial Agriculture, giving students the hands-on opportunity to learn how production and agriculture work. 

Ayeni hopes to keep growing the project so that New Jersey will become a big player in these exotic crops. He aspires to become part of the International Agricultural Project in the future, which is a worldwide organization that strives for agricultural production and innovations.

To achieve these goals, Orton believes that New Jersey needs to take initiative on supporting local farmer markets and emphasizing quality traits like flavor and nutrition.

“The need for farmers to be profitable and for communities to retain viable local food and agricultural economies creates opportunities for change in a broad spectrum of crop species,” he said.


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