Tag Archives: capsaicin

The Heat in Chiles – Scoville and Capsaicin

Get it? Heat? Chile? *taps microphone* Hullo, is this thing on?

If you’ll pardon my attempt at lame puns, I want address the issue about what makes chiles, y’know, so hot.

The substances that give chile peppers their heat are the alkaloid capsaicin, and other related chemicals. These substances are collectively called capsaicinoids. For the record, the other capsaicinoids are:

  • dihydrocapsaicin
  • nordihydrocapsaicin
  • homodihydrocapsaicin
  • homocapsaicin

Say them aloud at a party, and you’ll be sure to leave others either impressed or befuddled.

Speaking of impressing people, I could let you know how capsaicinoids interact with your body, creating the sensation of pain and heat. For instance, I could write “The sensations associated with capsaicin result from capsaicin’s chemical interaction with your sensory neurons. Capsaicin binds to a receptor called the vanilloid receptor subtype 1. This binding allows positively-charged ions to pass through the cell membrane and into the cell. This results in a “depolarization” of the neuron, causing the neuron to signal your brain with, what medical professionals call, an ‘owie’”.

I could write that, but you’d probably fall asleep as soon as I mentioned the phrase “vanilloid receptor subtype 1″. I base this assumption only on the fact that I slightly nodded off myself, and I typed out the darn thing.

Different chiles have different levels of capsaicinoids found within their fruits. This is why you can eat a bell pepper without any fuss, yet cry like Halle Berry winning an Oscar when taking a bite out of a scotch bonnet. The Scoville scale is a measure of the amount on capsaicinoids found in a chile pepper. Coincidentally named after it’s developer, William Scoville, the scale is set by measuring a dilution of pepper extract in sugar water until the ‘heat’ of a pepper is no longer detectable. As Wikipedia explains:

…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 Scoville scale now uses high pressure liquid chromatography in order to get a precise number. As it turns out, 15 Scoville units is roughly equivalent to one part capsaicin per million.

That’s only some of the science behind chile peppers. Later, I’ll post a list of varieties of chiles and each of their Scoville level. It promises to be fun interesting in a trivial sort of way.

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