The Scoville Scale

You’re sweating bullets and breathing fire.

That addictive heat you get from eating spicy food has been upgraded to actual pain and no matter how much water you drink, the burning won’t stop. When you eat spicy foods, your brain responds by releasing endorphins, natural painkillers that can make you feel pretty good. This natural high is part of the reason some people love spicy foods so much.

But how hot is hot? Many have heard of the Scoville scale, it measures the pungency (spicy heat) of chili peppers. We found an interesting article in Popular Science discussing how spiciness is measured and how the Scoville scale was born, here’s an excerpt.

The Scoville Scale

“In 1912, chemist Wilbur Scoville determined that no chemical test for spiciness could be as accurate as the human tongue, and so he devised a subjective scale, the Scoville Organoleptic test. An alcohol-based pepper extract is progressively diluted in sugar water and tasted until its spiciness can no longer be discerned. The amount of water required dictates the rating; a jalapeño takes about 5,000 parts water to one part pepper to neutralize the heat, so it is rated at 5,000 Scoville heat units (SHUs).

Today a pepper’s heat is measured in a lab, using high-performance liquid chromatography to precisely gauge the concentration of pungent compounds within peppers called capsaicinoids. Capsaicinoids make peppers hot; the relative proportion of various capsaicinoids is the reason some peppers’ burn lingers in the mouth while others are potent but fleeting. Lab tests that measure the concentrations of capsaicinoids first issue the results in American Spice Trade Association pungency units. One ASTA pungency unit is equivalent to about 15 SHUs. Out of tradition, the Scoville scale remains, so ASTA pungency units are multiplied by 15 and the results are given in SHUs. Yet even with precise tools, determining which strain of pepper is consistently the hottest is tricky. The pungency in chili peppers is 50 percent genetic and 50 percent environmental; pods that grow lower down on the plant are hotter. Stress on the plants, if water is withheld perhaps, makes them hotter.”

Recently, the Bhut Jolokia registered 1,001,304 SHUs, breaking the million-Scoville barrier for the first time. Now that’s hot!

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