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The History of Heat

Here is some history on what makes hot sauce and hot peppers so hot in temperature and who developed the famed heat scale known as the Scoville Heat Scale.

The Scoville scale is a measure of the hotness of a chilli pepper. These fruits of the Capsicum genus contain capsaicin, a chemical compound which stimulates thermoreceptor nerve endings in the skin, especially the mucus membranes, and the number of Scoville heat units (SHU) indicates the amount of capsaicin present. Many hot sauces use their Scoville rating in advertising as a selling point.

It is named after Wilbur Scoville, who developed the Scoville Organoleptic Test in 1912. As originally devised, a solution of the pepper extract is diluted in sugar water until the 'heat' is no longer detectable to a panel of (usually five) tasters; the degree of dilution gives its measure on the Scoville scale. Thus a sweet pepper, containing no capsaicin at all, has a Scoville rating of zero, meaning no heat detectable even undiluted. Conversely, the hottest chiles, such as habaneros, have a rating of 300,000 or more, indicating that their extract has to be diluted 300,000-fold before the capsaicin present is undetectable. The greatest weakness of the Scoville Organoleptic Test is its imprecision, because it relies on human subjectivity.

Spice heat is now usually measured by a method using high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) (also known as the "Gillett Method"). This identifies the heat-producing chemicals and weights them according to their relative capacity to produce a sensation of heat. This method actually yields results, not in Scoville units, but in "ASTA pungency units." A measurement of one part capsaicin per million corresponds to about 15 Scoville units, and the published method says that ASTA pungency units can be multiplied by 15 and reported as Scoville units. This conversion is approximate, and Tainter and Grenis say that there is consensus that it gives results about 20-40% lower than the actual Scoville method would have given.

List of Scoville ratings

Pungency values for any pepper, stated in "Scoville units," are imprecise, for three reasons:

  • They may vary considerably within a species—easily by a factor of 10 or more—depending on seed lineage, climate and even soil. This is especially true of habaneros.
  • True "Scoville units" are the result of an organoleptic test, in which the measurements of the same sample can vary by ±50%.
  • The modern High Pressure Liquid Chromatography test does not yield Scoville units, it yields "ASTA pungency units." The HPLC test itself can vary by about 12%. These are often converted to roughly equivalent Scoville unit values, but as noted above this conversion itself is imprecise.

When interpreting Scoville ratings, this imprecision should be kept in mind.

Scoville rating Type of pepper
15,000,000 - 16,000,000 Pure capsaicin
9,100,000 Nordihydrocapsaicin
8,600,000 Homodihydrocapsaicin and homocapsaicin
2,000,000 - 5,000,000 Standard US Grade pepper spray
855,000 - 1,041,427 Naga Jolokia
876,000 - 970,000 Dorset Naga
350,000 - 577,000 Red Savina Habanero
100,000 - 325,000 Scotch Bonnet
100,000 - 300,000 Habanero Chile
100,000 - 200,000 Jamaican Hot Pepper
50,000 - 100,000 Thai Pepper
30,000 - 50,000 Cayenne Pepper
10,000 - 23,000 Serrano Pepper
7,000 - 8,000 Tabasco Sauce (Habanero)
5,000 - 10,000 Wax Pepper
2,500 - 8,000 Jalapeño Pepper
2,500 - 5,000 Tabasco Sauce (Pepper)
1,500 - 2,500 Rocotillo Pepper
1,000 - 1,500 Poblano Pepper
600 - 800 Tabasco Sauce (Green Pepper)
500 - 1000 New Mexico Pepper
100 - 500 Pimento, Pepperoncini
0 No heat, Bell Pepper

Learn more about the Godfather of Heat - Wilbur Scoville
Learn more about the chemical compound Capsaicin

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