This is not an email about The Red Hot Chili Peppers, an American rock band, formed in 1983. This is an email about something more important, real peppers. So, the question should not be whether the peppers are hot or not. The question should be, “How hot are they?” I am glad you asked.
The measurement of pepper pungency or the “spicy heat” is called the Scoville Scale. The number of Scoville heat units indicates the amount of capsaicin present. Capsaicin is the compound that does the damage, since it stimulates chemoreceptor nerve endings in the skin and mucous membranes. The highest rating for pure capsaicin is 16,000 Scoville units, probably enough to start a fire.
I mention Scoville in part, because Wilbur Scoville was an American pharmacist. He devised this method back in 1912, and called it the Scoville Organoleptic Test. In today’s technology, the equivalent is the high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), which can directly measure capsaicin levels.
Rather than bore you about Mr. Scoville’s methods, perhaps it is best to move on to the subject of peppers. A sweet or bell pepper has no capsaicin at all, or a Scoville rating of zero. On the other end (so to speak), are the habaneros and nagas, with Scoville ratings of 20,000 or more!!!! But the greatest weakness of the Scoville method is that it relies on human subjectivity. Tasters are allowed only one tasting per session.
However, HPLC identifies and measures the concentration of heat-producing chemicals. The measurements use a mathematical formula that peppers lovers could care less about. This methods yields results, not in Scoville units, but in American Spice Trade Association (ASTA) pungency units. A measurement of one part capsaicin per million is equivalent to 15 Scoville units. ASTA pungency units are multiplied by fifteen and reported as Scoville units. Here you go:
|Scoville heat units
Scoville ratings of peppers
|Scoville heat units
||Most law enforcement grade pepper spray, Trinidad Moruga Scorpion
||Naga Viper pepper, Infinity Chilli, Bhut Jolokia chili pepper, Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper, Bedfordshire Super Naga
||Red Savina habanero
||Habanero chili, Scotch bonnet pepper, Datil pepper, Rocoto, Madame Jeanette, Peruvian White Habanero, Jamaican hot pepper, Guyana Wiri Wiri
||Byadgi chilli, Bird’s eye chili (aka. Thai Chili Pepper), Malagueta pepper, Chiltepin pepper, Piri piri (African bird’s eye), Pequin pepper
||Guntur chilli, Cayenne pepper, Ají pepper, Tabasco pepper, Cumari pepper (Capsicum chinese), Katara (spicy)
||Serrano pepper, Peter pepper, Aleppo pepper
||Espelette pepper, Jalapeño pepper, Chipotle, Guajillo pepper, New Mexican varieties of Anaheim pepper, Hungarian wax pepper, Tabasco sauce
||Anaheim pepper, Poblano pepper, Rocotillo pepper, Peppadew
||Pimento, Peperoncini, Banana pepper
|No significant heat
||Bell pepper, Cubanelle, Aji dulce
While I enjoy some hot and spice in my food, Tabasco sauce at 3500-8000 Scoville heat units is my limit, unless the chef sneaks in something. I have never been blasted with full strength law enforcement grade pepper spray. I have been tear-gassed, back in the 1960s on the U.C. Berkeley campus.
Digress for a moment to the Naga Viper pepper, according to Guinness, the world’s hottest pepper. Interestingly, it was created by an English farmer named Gerald Fowler, based in Cumbria. It is a three way hybrid of Naga Morich, Bhut Jolokia, and Trinidad Scorpion (awesome names).
The habanero pepper is more common to this area. They are green, and continue to the color red as they ripen. I have tried them without much success, as they are too hot for me, raw or cooked. It falls somewhere between 100,000 and 350,000 Scoville units. The habaneros are native to the Amazonas area, then spread northward to Mexico. The oldest one was found to be 8500 years old. They grow well in hot weather, and are popular throughout Central and South America. Texans came up with a way to make the habanero light, or a more mild version in 2004.
Getting back to capsaicin itself, it was first extracted back in 1816 by Christian Bucholz. But Karl Micko was the first to isolate capsaicin in its purest form in 1898. In 1919, E. K. Nelson determined its empirical formula. Spath and Darling first synthesized capsaicin in 1930.
The highest concentration of capsaicin is found not in the seeds, but in the white pith of the inner walls, where the seeds are attached. In 2006, it was determined that the venom in certain tarantulas activates the same pathways of pain as is activated by capsaicin. But I am more interested in its use as medicine.
Capsaicin is used in topical creams and ointments to relieve peripheral neuropathy, specifically post-herpetic neuralgia caused by shingles. The concentration used is between 0.025% to 0.15%. The creams can also be used for temporary pain relief for minor aches, muscle pain, joint pain (arthritis), back aches, sprains and strains, and even psoriasis. It is best applied by a person wearing both gloves and a face mask. The capsaicin is left on the skin until the patient feels the heat, in which case, it is removed.
Capsaicin is also used in riot control, as well as personal defense pepper spray. It is very painful when it comes in contact with skin, eyes and mucous membranes. Breathing small particles causes great difficulty in breathing. In large quantities, it can cause death!
So, is there an antidote? Of course. The best antidote for topical exposure is oily compounds, like salad oil or petroleum jelly (Vaseline). For an oral overdose, milk seems to be the best. In fact, many restaurants that challenge big eaters to ingest hot foods, often ban the use of cold milk by the participant, until he gives in. Just about anything cold seems to help. Eyes are rather difficult to treat, with only symptomatic relief from ophthalmic anesthetics.
Another danger signal comes to those who tend to eat large amounts of capsaicin. There seem to be higher rates for stomach and liver cancer in areas inhabited by people who ingest high amounts of capsaicin rich foods. There is no evidence that it is useful in weight loss.
So, there it is, everything you wanted to know about red hot chili peppers.