09 December 2014

Chili Peppers Addendum

Last Friday’s blog post, Add Some Spice, reviewed potential health benefits of spicy foods, specifically chili peppers, without saying much about chili peppers. I thought I’d remedy that in today’s addendum.

Chili Peppers

I did mention that there are many, many chili peppers. They originated in the Americas, and though there are only five major cultivated species within the genus Capsicum, there are thousands of cultivars (e.g., Peruvian White, Red Savina, Yucatan White or TigerPaw-NR Habaneros) and hundreds of commonly used peppers. To add to the fun, chili peppers may have different names in different regions, and every so often someone produces a new one, cross-breeding to make it hotter, for example, than the rest.

As noted in Friday’s post, that spicy heat, which rises from none in sweet peppers to call the fire department! in hotter peppers, is caused by capsaicinoids, a group of chemicals of which capsaicin is the most common.

Examples of sweet peppers from Karl Foord (blog.lib.umn.edu/efans/ygnews/2011/08/post-15.html)
Scoville Heat Units

The Scoville test and scale have been the accepted method for categorizing chili peppers’ intensity since the test’s development in 1912. For the test, an alcohol extract of capsaicin from a defined weight of dried pepper is added to a solution of sugar in water until the majority of trained tasters can detect the heat.

The Scoville scale is based on the measured dilution and is in Scoville heat units (SHU). Peppers range from 0 SHU, for those with no capsaicin, to the hottest, which is currently over 2 million SHU; pure capsaicin is 16 million SHU.

High-Performance Liquid Chromatography

Given the imprecision of organoleptic testing (i.e., those that rely on human senses such as taste), there’s been a shift to more accurate and objective lab measurement with high-performance liquid chromatography. Although more expensive, HPLC can provide total heat and break out specific capsaicinoids.

Different testing labs offer one or the other, or both methods, and the American Spice Trade Association (ASTA) publishes the HPLC procedure accepted by the spice industry. ASTA also has a conversion of HPLC measurements to approximate SHU ratings, though the estimates have been judged to be low by 20% to 40%.

Selected Chili Pepper Ratings

For your ranking pleasure, here are the Scoville ratings of a handful of chili peppers whose names you’ll likely recognize plus the current hottest. They represent three species of Capsicum. Wikipedia and various websites (see P.S.) have long lists of peppers with detailed information should you wish to explore.

Capsicum annuum

Banana or Yellow Wax Pepper, 0-500 SHU (photo from www.chilipeppermadness.com/chili-pepper-types.html#.VHD71snqOUk)
Pimento or Cherry Pepper, 100-500 SHU (photo from www.chilipeppermadness.com/chili-pepper-types.html#.VHD71snqOUk)
Jalapeño Pepper, 2,500-10,000 SHU (photo from www.cayennediane.com/BigListofPeppers/Big-List-of-peppers.html)
Note that chipotle is a smoke-dried ripe jalapeño.
Cayenne Pepper, 30,000-50,000 SHU (photo from
Capsicum frutescens

Tabasco Peppers, 30,000-50,000 SHU (photo from
Capsicum chinense

Habanero Pepper, 100,000-350,000 SHU (photo from commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHabanero_chile_-_flower_with_fruit_%28aka%29.jpg)
Carolina Reaper Peppers, 1,569,383-2,200,000 SHU (photo from

Background on testing and scale:

Example websites with lists of chile peppers:
scovillescaleforpeppers.com/ (need to paste in browser)
www.scottrobertsweb.com/scoville-scale/ (mostly hot sauces)

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