Fun factoids about peppers, pigs and your heart

by Carolyn Thomas      @HeartSisters 

Whenever I do my “Heart-Smart Women”  public presentations, I bring along a unique prop. To help me demonstrate to my audiences what a woman’s heart looks like, I pull out a red bell pepper. Yes. A pepper.

When I shop for my prop at my local grocery store, I look for just the right one: a nice healthy red colour, slightly pointy at the bottom, about the size of my clenched fist, and I weigh it at the produce department scale looking for one that weighs about 250 grams.

But am I wrong about those comparisons to the heart?        .

First, pointing out the intricacies of a common food can be a fun way to describe our most important organ. But I learned just recently, for example, that what I believed to be a pretty accurate visual aid may not be representing the human heart. Herein, some fascinating factoids about both hearts and peppers:

I learned, for example, that your heart isn’t really as red as a red pepper at all.

The blood that it pumps is red, but your heart itself is darker and browner than the blood. And according to cardiac surgeon Dr. Christopher Magovern, it turns out that the surface of your heart has abundant deposits of fat (no matter your body weight), which make the surface of your heart look more yellow than red.

I also learned that we know how much a heart generally weighs because of autopsy reports – but only reports from those who have died of non-cardiac causes (e.g. weighing healthy hearts that have not been affected by any form of advanced heart disease).

The weight of an adult heart varies from 110-420 grams (approximately 4 to 14 ounces, for my American readers). But that’s such a broad difference that it makes you wonder if some pathologists had a thumb on the scale during the autopsy. . .

The University of Guelph’s Dr. Glen Pyle is my go-to resource whenever I’m looking for a Professor of Molecular Cardiology. Sure enough, he told me this about weighing hearts:

These hearts are from women without heart disease, but as you know, there could be some sub-clinical issues that push the heart towards the higher end. More fit women may have larger hearts, but my guess would be the biggest reason for the wide range is the range of body weight.

“We do know that, man or woman, a larger body weight tends to mean a larger heart.

Anatomy textbooks typically tell us that the human heart is the size of your fist. But in an interesting study published in the journal Cardiovascular Pathology, researchers in Switzerland have suggested that this idea that a normal heart is as big as a clenched fist is incorrect.(1) 

The only cases Swiss researchers found in which hearts and fists were the same size, in fact, were in women diagnosed with cardiomegaly (an enlarged heart condition). In fact, heart volume and hand volume may differ significantly in the same person.

Meanwhile, your heart is a relatively small, hollow, muscular organ which is in charge of pumping blood throughout your  whole body.    My red bell pepper visual aid, by comparison, is also hollow and muscular.

The heart has four main chambers within its hollow self: the left and right atrium, and the left and right ventricle.     A bell pepper has 3-4 chambers (called locules) within its hollow self. And by the way, there’s no truth to the gardening rumour that a pepper with four bumpy lobes on the bottom between the locules is a sweeter tasting, seedier female (compared to a “male” pepper’s three-lobed versions). Factoid: it is the flower, not the fruit that are the sexual organs in plants (and – another fun factoid! – peppers are actually fruits if you’re a botanist);  there’s no particular gender associated with bell peppers.

The heart has a fibrous sac called the pericardium surrounding the entire organ. This skin-like pericardium is made of two thin layers with a small amount of fluid between them that helps to reduce friction between the two layers as they rub against each other during each heartbeat. The normal pericardium is shiny and smooth.    A bell pepper’s skin is also shiny and smooth. But did you know that the skin of a bell pepper is not easy to digest – especially if it’s a green pepper? This is why some chefs recommend roasting them, either in the oven or with a blowtorch. You can also peel them raw using a peeler. This is good to know, although I must admit I have never in my life peeled or blowtorched a green pepper before eating it.

The human heart is located under the rib cage, between the lungs and in approximately the middle of the chest, tipped slightly left of the sternum (the breast bone).  Unlike what Americans believe when placing their hands upon their hearts while singing their anthem, they are actually patting the left lung.     Bell peppers are located in the produce department at a grocery store or farmer’s market, or if you’re very fortunate, in your own backyard garden patch.:-)

Other fun factoids about hearts:

♥  Modesty prompted the invention of the stethoscope. Before it existed, doctors had to press an ear directly to each patient’s bare chest.

♥  In under a minute, your heart can pump blood to every cell in your body.

  Every cell gets blood from the heart, except for your corneas.

  Your heart begins beating four weeks after conception, and it doesn’t stop beating until you die.

  Over the course of an average day, about 100,000 heartbeats shuttle 2,000 gallons of oxygen-rich blood many times through about 60,000 miles of branching blood vessels.

  And finally, the pig: before cardiologists can diagnose or treat humans with heart disease, research scientists first need to study how these procedures work on lab animals. It turns out that pigs are the closest animals to humans when it comes to learning about our cardiovascular systems:  “The swine commonly used for heart research have a heart size-to-body weight ratio that’s identical to that of humans.”(2)

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Resources for this article included University of Guelph Professor of Molecular Cardiology Dr. Glen Pyle; cardiac surgeon Dr. Christopher Magovern;  Mayo Clinic; the Heart and Stroke Foundation,  Oldways; and the following academic sources:

  1. G. Ampanozi et al, “Comparing fist size to heart size is not a viable technique to assess cardiomegaly”. Cardiovascular Pathology, Volume 36, September–October 2018, Pages 1-5.
  2. E. Migliati, “Large animal models for cardiac cell therapy”. Stem Cell and Gene Therapy for Cardiovascular Disease, Academic Press, 2016.

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 Q: Do you have anything to add about peppers, pigs or hearts here today?

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:   I wrote much more about heart factoids, both fun and serious, in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease. You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 20% off the list price).

6 thoughts on “Fun factoids about peppers, pigs and your heart

  1. This was such a great post, Carolyn, really enjoyed reading it.

    I had to laugh at your description of trying to find just the RIGHT red bell pepper for your talks because, over the course of my 25 or so years of teaching art to private school students and homeschoolers, I spent a lot of time at farmers’ markets and produce departments searching for just the RIGHT fruits or veggies for still life lessons, especially for an apple drawing lesson with colored pencils that was one of my best. (The kids loved it because they could eat the still life after they drew it.)

    We also drew peppers, both cut and uncut. They have such great shapes! (For an interesting artist known for his famous pepper photography, check out Edward Weston, particularly his Pepper #30). To this day I can’t be at a produce market without getting the itch to do a still life . . . art and vegetables are two things I really love!

    Red bell peppers (or yellow or orange) are one of four vegetables that I consider essential and have in my produce drawer at all times. If I have those and carrots, celery and onions, I can make pretty much anything, from stir fry to soups. They are essential in a salad for me, and my favorite way to eat them is cut in strips with thick blue cheese dip (don’t worry, I don’t do this a lot!). Peppers have about 3 times the amount of vitamin C as an orange. They are so healthy for you! (And even for your dog — Carly, my lab/husky mix, loves carrots and red peppers and will come sit right next to me with hopeful eyes whenever I’m cutting them. I toss pieces of them to her and she catches them in mid-air. Our vet feeds these to her dogs too so I know they are safe.)

    I think that you can’t go wrong with continuing to use peppers as a visual aid for your talks. It always helps to have a visual reference of some kind even if it’s not totally perfect in analogy. I probably will always think of heart health now whenever I look at a pepper!

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    1. You are a kindred spirit, Meghan – you know how important it is to select JUST the RIGHT prop!! 🙂 Thanks for telling me about Edward Weston’s pepper #30. I have never seen this photo before – it is spectacular!! I also learned, speaking of fun factoids, that he took that picture with a tiny f/240 aperture setting on his camera, so this shot took four hours of exposure! Here’s the link, FYI.

      Like you, I also like to keep peppers, carrots, celery and onions on hand in the kitchen and I’m ready for anything! Oh, yes, and tomatoes! (Except my darling daughter-in-law Paula doesn’t eat peppers, celery OR tomatoes – so that requires some creativity when I’m making her soup or chili or ? ? ?

      Not only are peppers super healthy, they are the most gorgeous and colourful addition to any veggie tray – and a pretty distinctive public speaking prop, too!

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  2. Pig valves have been used for human heart valve replacements for a very long time….Although pig valves don’t last as long as artificial heart valves … If you have a pig valve for your valve replacement you don’t need to take anti-coagulant therapy.

    You can get a good idea of what a miniature human heart might look like by looking at a chicken or turkey heart. If you care to dissect the chicken or turkey heart… there are two atriums but only one ventricle (we have 2 of each, as you mentioned).

    Yes, as a budding young human biology geek I used to demand to dissect all the poultry hearts brought in for dinner (dissect them raw not cooked for more accurate view).

    When I had open heart surgery to remove excess cardiac muscle from the septum between my two ventricles, I asked for pictures. So I have an actual photo of my heart as well as a photo of a pile of 6 grams of heart muscle and fibrosis they removed from my heart. Too bad your comment section doesn’t take photo attachments. LOL!

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    1. I can just picture you as a budding young human biology geek, Jill! I agree with you about having pictures of your own body parts. The x-ray of the broken bone in my foot after a cycling accident is still absolutely fascinating to me!

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  3. Thank you, Carolyn! I learned a lot about the heart, peppers, and pigs today!

    And though it may not be the best representative of a human heart, holding up a red pepper at your presentation was likely very memorable for your audience and may have helped them remember more of the information you gave them.

    I read a fascinating book recently, Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking With Einstein. He describes how potent images are to remembering things. Images are sticky and they make recall much easier.

    Now, when I want to remember something, I attach an image to it and it doesn’t get forgotten. My guess is your peppers were a potent reminder of your talk!

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    1. Hello Denise – thanks for that mention of Moonwalking with Einstein. Haven’t read it yet, but I sure agree with the power of impactful visual aids to help retention – and even to help motivation. Since you mentioned Joshua Foer’s book, I’ve been reading about his advice on how we retain information (ranging from lists of numbers to simply remembering what’s on a grocery list). He cites ancient tricks of the trade that suggest the best way to remember info is to imagine the “silliest, craziest scene”, something that is unlike anything you’ve seen before. Hence the success of me holding up that silly red pepper to represent this organ! Now I can’t wait to read the whole book. Thank you!

      Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz used to tell the story of breaking his own personal record in practice to win the gummy bear candies his coach had offered if he could do it! I just might continue using those red peppers…

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