How Hot Is It?
By Dr. Rizwana Rahim
How hot is it? If it is about
spicy food, you can easily go through a routine
Johnny Carson used to have about the weather: “It
is SO hot that ….” But how can you say
it scientifically? And, compare any two such items
We know it’s the pepper (chilli, chili or,
in Spanish, chile), but what makes it hot, and why?
Its ‘hotness’ or pungency is produced
mostly in the white "ribs" that form the
innermost layer of the cover/flesh that surrounds
the seeds, and then, the seeds acquire it. Pungency
in the rest of the fruit is not high, and is unevenly
distributed. The color of the pod is the result
of contribution from 20-plus carotenoids (capsanthin,
found in the red and ripe pods, being the major
carotenoid, up to 60% of the total).
The pungency is due to alkaloid compounds called
capsaicinoids, more specifically a group of 7 homologous
branded chain alkyl vanillylamides. Two of them,
capsaicin and dihydro-capsaicin, are most abundant.
They are present either in equal amounts or capsaicin
is 2x more than the other. They make up about 80-90%
of the total capsaicin oids. Capsaicin is a vanilloid,
and this group includes vanillin, present in vanilla
! Capsaicin is similar to peperin, found in black
To scientifically determine the pungency of the
pepper, an organoleptic test was developed nearly
a hundred years ago (J. Amer. Pharmacists Assoc.
1: 453-454, 1912). It ‘digitalized’
the pungency in terms of ‘Scoville’
Heat Units (SHU), named after the developer, Wilbur
Scoville, who was then working for Parke-Davis.
Initially, it was based on the experience of a panel
tasters, generally 5.& nbsp; It involved diluting
the extract of the pepper with equal amounts of
sugar water, over and over again sequentially, till
the diluted extract has NO bite, pungency or ‘heat’,
when tasted by the panel. The number of times pepper
extract was diluted is its SHU. The hotter the pepper,
the higher the score. For instance, a cayenne pepper
extract has to be diluted with equal amounts of
sugar water 25,000 to 50,000-fold before it loses
its ‘hotness’. Because of this, it got
25,000-50,000 SHU. On the same scale, Jalapeno pepper
got 2,500 to 5,000 SHU, that is, considerably less
hot. The considerable SHU range fo r each pepper
is mostly due to individual differences in reaction
among the 5 tasters, and such highly subjective
tests are fraught with problems, including the wide
A recent more sensitive and reliable chemical test
was developed to measure what actually causes the
‘hotness’, i.e., capsaicinoids, by analyzing
the extract with high-pressure liquid chromatography,
HPLC, techniques (J. E. Woodbury, J. Assn. Offic.
Anal. Chem. 63:556-558, 1980; M. D. Collins, et
al. HortScience 30:137-139, 1995). The Scoville
scale (a kind of Thermal Richter scale) ranges from
the sweet or bell pepper (which has no capsaicin)
at 0 SHU to pure capsaicin, which is the hottest
at about 15,000,000 SHU. For getting SHU from the
capsaicin amount measured by HPLC, multiply capsaicin
(in ppm, or parts per million) by 15.
Some pepper varieties with increasing pungency are
SHU (in parenthesis) : pimento and pepperoncini
(100-500); Coronado (700-1,000); pablano (1,000-2,000);
jalapeno (2,500-8,000); chipotle and hot-wax (5,000-10,000);
serrano (5,000-23,000); tabasco & cayenne (30,000-50,000);
chiltepin (50,000-100,000); Carolina cayenne (100,000-125,000);
Scotch bonnet and habanero chile (100,000-350,000).
The Guiness record holder has been Red Savina habanero
(350,000-580,000). Then at 855,000 SHU (unverified)
came Tezpur, Naga- or Bih- Jolokia chili (C. frutescens;
2 in long, half-inch wide when mature; orange color,
similar to habanero). Jolokia was discovered in
Tezpur, Assam, by Indian Defense Dept. scientists
from Gwalior and Guwahati; if its SHU is confirmed,
it’d be the hottest pepper in the world. Pungency
can vary depending on the climatic and soil conditions
and the maturity of the fruit. By genetic engineering
and breeding, scientists have been able to modify/manipulate
pungency as well as other properties.
Pepper/chilli/chili/chile is a fruit belonging (botanically)
to Solanaceae family that includes tomato, eggplant,
potato and tobacco. Pepper belongs to the genus
Capsicum and it has about 22 wild species, 5 commercially
cultivated: C. annuum (most cultivated pepper cultivars
in the world), C. frutescens (the tabasco), C. chinense
(habanero), C. baccatum (most common in South America)
and C. pubescens (less known, mostly in Andean South
America and the Central American highlands).
Pepper is native to Mexico, and grew in the wild
as far back as 7,500 BC, and has been in cultivation
since 3,500 BC. Columbus is said to be the one who
introduced pepper/chile to Europe, and from there
it spread eastward. And, it seems it was Vasco da
Gama who brought pepper/chile to India, where perhaps
because of the climate and soil, it has thrived.
India is the biggest producer of chili in the world,
exporting 35 tons/year, according to Reuters. In
the US, the biggest chile producer is New Mexico.
New Mexico State University in Las Cruces even has
‘The Chile Pepper Institute’ where,
besides in-house research and graduate programs,
annual conferences are held on various aspects of
pepper (the one for 2006 was held in early February).
Now, the reason we feel its pungency is because
an electron-poor area in capsaicins binds to receptor-proteins
in the mouth lining and tongue. These are thermoreceptors,
hence a burning feeling -- the result of calcium
ions flowing from one cell to another. Pepper also
releases endorphins, a neurotransmitter and a natural
pain-killer, that attach to the same receptors as
opiates, and produce a similar feeling. Eating hot
food causes an endorphin-rush (sweating, some pain),
a sense of euphoria, the kind felt by the joggers
or those doing an exercise involving pain and stress.
Peppers are rich in Vitamin C, Vitamin A (in dried
chilli), and beta-carotenes (red chillies), bioflavinoids
and anti-oxidants. Bell pepper has 2x and red pepper
3x more Vitamin C than an orange (per unit weight).
Capsaicin has a long history of medicinal use, dating
back to the Mayans who used pepper/chile to treat
asthma, sore throat, toothache, etc. Currently,
it is an active ingredient in liniments (external
application) used against aching muscles, arthritis
and minor pains. It also has some anti-bacterial
properties and is also a strong analgesic.
So, think about all this molecular gastronomy next
time you go for really spicy food. Lot of folk-lore
about what to do when it’s too hot, but remember,
capsaicin is a fat-soluble substance (like oil):
water won’t dissolve it, but would just distribute
it to other parts of the mouth; bread and rice will
however soak it up, milk may provide a coating.
So, enjoy the meal.