Measuring Heat

Just like earthquakes, peppers have a scale to let you know what their impact is going to be. It’s called the Scoville Scale, and it measures how hot the type of pepper is. A pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville created the scale as a subjective test based on taste way back in 1912. He had some people try an increasingly diluted solution of the pepper until they noticed their mouth wasn’t burning. Seems pretty subjective now, but it was the best he could come up with.

Since then, we’ve introduced science into the testing, but the idea is still essentially the same. Since the 1970s, we’ve been using High Performance Liquid Chromatography (you may see it abbreviated as HPLC) to measure the amount of capsaicin oil (the chemical that causes the burning sensation) in foods and rate them on the scale accordingly. There are more accurate ways, but this is the most well-known and it is usually prominately displayed on labels.

If you see a pepper and it’s rated at 2,500 Scoville Units, it would need to be diluted 2,500 times before your eyes didn’t water, your nose wouldn’t run, and your mouth wouldn’t feel like it was on fire. So the higher the Scoville Units, the more the capsaicin and the hotter the pepper. Since all kinds of things can affect the way a chile pepper grows, the heat level is more of a range than an exact number. You want accurate measurements, eat something else. You want spice, you throw caution to the wind and accept that sometimes things are just going to be hotter is all.

On the very low end of the scale, you’ll find sweet bell peppers. Regardless of their color, they usually barely break 100 Scoville Units. Tabasco’s Original Hot Sauce clocks in at about 2,500 Scoville Units, which is about halfway between a sweet bell pepper and a jalapeno pepper.

I know you’re wondering about the other end of that scale now. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the current holder of World’s Hottest Pepper is Smokin’ Ed’s Carolina Reaper Pepper. It ranges somewhere in the neighborhood of1.4 million to 2.2 million Scoville Units. To give you an idea of how hot that is, commercially available pepper spray hits between 2 and 5.3 million Scoville Units. You understand that right – eating one of those peppers is basically the equivalent to pepper spraying yourself in the mouth. And your digestive tract. Just sit with that information for a few minutes.

Now, you’ll also see a range for hot sauces as well. I have found most commercially-made hot sauces tend to be pretty accurate as far as their heat scale goes, but if it is home made or created in small batches, the heat has more leeway and maybe one bottle is super hot and the next one is just mildly tear-inducing. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it all makes sense when you think about it. That’s nature for you.

Besides, they say variety is the spice of life, right?