Jan 22nd & The Scoville Heat Unit

By: Karen Diep

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Carolina Reaper is the world’s hottest (and ugliest) pepper to date (Photo credit: abc.com)

January 22nd marks the day of Wilbur Scoville’s birthday. Who is Wilbur Schoville you may ask? Well the name “Scoville” might ring a bell if you’ve dabbled in chili science.

Scoville invented the “Scoville Organoleptic Test” as a measure of the spiciness or piquancy of chili peppers. He was a trained as a pharmacist but devised a way to measure the heat of chili peppers by extracting the heat components of peppers (capsinoids). This method involved using an exact measure of dried chili pepper dissolved in alcohol. It was then diluted in a solution of sugar and water and then diluted further into decreasing concentrations. These samples were then taken to a panel of five trained taste testers who would taste the dilutions in decreasing order until they can no longer detect the heat of the dilution. The measure of heat is taken from the level of the dilution and rated in multiples of 100 SHU or Scoville Heat Units.

Today, the method is still used but is considered to be somewhat imprecise due to the variability of human subjectiveness in sensory evaluations. However, Scoville’s test was a first step in measuring the function of capsaicin concentration–the key component that creates the spicy sensation we feel when we consumer chilies. Today, methods of chromatography are used as a more accurate indicator of  heat but nevertheless, the Scoville heat unit is still used as a measure of heat sensitivity to humans. Thanks to Scoville, we can now know how spicy our peppers are and better understand the function of heat in foods. Thank you Wilbur Scoville and happy 151st birthday!

Fun fact: The world’s current hottest pepper is the Carolina Reaper with a official record of 1.5 million SHU (bell peppers have only 0 SHU and jalapeños have 1 to 2 thousand SHU)

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