For the last few years, the Carolina Reaper has reigned as the world’s hottest pepper, registering a mouth-scorching 2.2 million SHU (Scoville Heat Units) But some new additions have made the 2020 list of the world’s ten hottest peppers.
These include the Ghost Pepper (Bhut Jolokia), the first pepper to test scientifically at more than one million SHU. Though the Ghost Pepper is so hot that India’s military has reportedly used it to make “chili grenades,” it has fallen to number seven on the list.
Other peppers purportedly used as non-lethal weapons include several variations on the so-called “7-pot chili pepper”, (such as the 7-Pot Douglah and 7-pot Primo). The name of these varietals comes from the fact that they are said to be hot enough to spice 7 pots of stew. In Trinidad, they used to make military-grade tear gas and also in marine paint, as the spiciness prevents barnacles from forming.
Why do people enjoy eating super-hot chili peppers?
The heat in chili peppers is caused by a chemical compound called capsaicin. Capsaicin tricks the brain into thinking there’s a change in the body’s temperature. While capsaicin doesn’t actually burn the tongue, the skin, the digestive tract, etc., the brain doesn’t know that. It will thus try to cool the body down and wash the offending substance out by any means necessary — including the production of saliva, mucus, and tears.
The brain may also produce endorphins and dopamine in response to chili peppers. Endorphins and dopamine are “feel good” chemicals that block the nerves’ ability to transmit pain signals. For some people, this creates an endorphin-rush (“high”) that makes them willing to tolerate the pain caused by the capsaicin first.
Who created the Scoville scale for measuring chili peppers spiciness?
Wilbur Lincoln Scoville was a pharmacologist born in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1895. He was best known for writing “The Art of Compounding,” a popular pharmacological reference guide that was first published in 1895 and used into the 1960s (appearing in no fewer than eight editions).
At some point before 1912, Scoville went to work at Parke, Davis & Co., a pharmaceutical company that sold pretty much anything and everything — cocaine cigarettes, anyone? The company (now Parke-Davis) has been, since 2000, a division of Pfizer, best known for drugs such as the best-selling fibromyalgia medication Lyrica.
In 1912, while at Parke-Davis, Scoville devised a test and scale to measure the amount of capsaicin in chili peppers. The test is now known as the “Scoville Organoleptic Test,” or the “Scoville scale,” for short. No one seems to know exactly why Scoville developed the test, but remember… he was working for the company that sold cocaine cigarettes.
Scoville heat units vs. ASTA pungency units
One important thing to note about the Scoville scale is that it is a subjective test for piquancy (spiciness). A more objective measure of heat is ASTA pungency units, developed by the American Spice Trade Association (ASTA).
The ASTA test uses high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) to measure the concentration of spice-producing chemicals. The value is then multiplied by 15 to give the rough equivalence in Scoville units (i.e., 1 ASTA pungency unit = 15 Scoville units)–though converting ASTA pungency units to Scoville units yields a value from 20 to 50 percent lower than the value from the original Scoville Organoleptic Test.
Scoville died in 1942 at age 77. While the cause of his death is unknown, it’s comforting to think that perhaps it was the Carolina Reaper that came to collect his soul.