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What Is Capsaicin? What Are Scoville Heat Units?

11 years ago


To most Chile Heads, this is what it's all about! Chile Heads are those of us with a strong devotion to the celebration of all things Chile. This devotion has Chile Heads eating, growing, harvesting, cooking, wearing and researching everything Chile. This devotion to chiles begins with eating chiles. Chile Heads not only consider how hot is the chile, but where they feel the first burn, did the burn come on fast and sharp or was it a creeper burn, how long the burning sensation lasts and not to mention the flavor of the chile.

Capsaicin is what puts the heat or pungency in chiles. It is a compound that is insoluble in water, tasteless and odorless. It is made of seven closely related alkaloid or capsaicinoids. Three of these components cause the 'rapid bite' at the back of the palate and throat and two others cause the long, slow burn on the tongue. Capsaicin is produced and found in the placental partition ('white' cross wall and veins) of the pod. The seeds become pungent through contact with the placenta.

In 1912, Wilbur Scoville, a chemist under the employ of Parke Davis Pharmaceutical Company, developed a method to measure the heat level of chiles. The test is call the Scoville Organoleptic Test. In his original testing, Mr. Scoville blended various pure ground chiles with a sugar-water solution. A panel of testers then sipped the concoctions in increasingly diluted concentration, until they reached the point at which the solutions no longer burned the mouth. A number was then assigned to each variety of chile based on how much it needed to be diluted before heat was no longer tasted. This measurement of millions of drops of water-sugar solution is then translated into Scoville Heat Units (SHU) in multiples of 100. This technique is subjective amd depends on the taster's palate and it's response to the pungent chemicals. The accuracy of this test is often criticized and modified versions have been developed.

The most accurate method for measuring pungency in chiles is a High performance liquid chromatography. In this procedure, chile pods are dried, then ground. Next, the chemicals responsible for the pungency are extracted, and the extract is injected into the HPLC device for analysis. This method is more costly than the Scoville test or the Taste test but much more accurate. This method measures the total heat present as well as the individual capsaicinoids present.

Scoville Units

Chile Varieties and Commercial Products


Pure Capsaicin


Habanero, Scotch Bonnet,
South American chinenses, African birdseye


Santaka, Chiltepin,
Rocoto, Chinese kwangsi


Piquin, Cayenne Long,
Tabasco, Thai prik khee nu, Pakistan dundicut


de Arbol, Crushed Red Pepper, Habanero Hot Sauce


Early Jalapeno, Aji Amarillo, Serrano, Tabasco Sauce


TAM Mild Jalapeno,
Mirasol, Cayenne Large Thick, Louisiana hot sauce


Sandia, Cascabel, Yellow Wax Hot


Ancho, Pasilla, Espanola Improved, Old Bay Seasoning


NuMex Big Jim, NuMex 6-4,
chili powder


NuMex R-Naky, Mexi-Bell,
Cherry; Hungarian hot paprika


Pickled pepperoncini


Mild Bells, Pimiento,
Sweet Banana

There is always the simple and often used scale of 1 - 10, with 10 being the hottest. The heat can often be so intense that it seems anything above an 7 or 8 seems like a 10.

In September 2000, the news spread like 'chile-fire' that scientists in India claimed that the hottest chile in the world is grown in the northeastern hills of Assam. A variety called Naga Jolokia (capsicum frutescens) tested 855,000 Scoville Heat Units. This far surpassed the Red Savina, listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's hottest chile, which measured in at 577,000 SHU. Still awaiting the official winner in this race. A new contender in this race is the Francisca Habanero.

What About The Capsaicin Addiction?

It is said that the burning sensation from capsaicin is addictive. It is also said that one becomes 'conditioned' to this sensation. The reason is that during the eating of chiles, a chemical in the chile pepper called Capsaicin, irritates the trigeminal cells. These are pain receptor cells located throughout the mouth, the nose and the throat. When your body's nerves feel the pain induced by the chemical on these cells, they immediately start to transmit pain messages to your brain. Your brain receives these signals and responds by automatically releasing endorphins (the body's natural painkiller). These endorphins kick in and act as a painkiller and at the same time, create a temporary feeling of euphoria, giving the chile pepper eater, a natural high. The body's other responses include increasing the heart rate to increase the metabolism, increasing salivation in order to try and refresh the mouth and by increasing the rate of sweating by the body. Your nose also starts to run and the gastrointestinal tract slips into high speed. Hot and spicy food lovers soon begin to crave these feelings and are soon hooked.

As some may know by tasting several jalapenos, this heat level can vary from pod to pod, as the result of growth condition and genetics. This is why you see a range of SHU's above. Each pod has its own "personality".

Written by peppermania


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