The so-called Scoville scale was developed 100 years ago to estimate the sharpness. It is named after its inventor, the American chemist Wilbur Scoville. The scale only measures the degree of spiciness of the fruits of the pepper plant. It can only be used to determine the degree of spiciness of chili, pepperoni, or cayenne pepper. But how to measure hotness of chili?
Chili is so hot because of the chemical capsaicin. If the substance in the mouth comes into contact with the mucous membrane, an injury is simulated to the nervous system. We get the feeling in the mouth that it is burning. The hottest variety of chili is the Habanero which has the highest concentration of capsaicin.
How to measure hotness of chili? To develop a unit of measure for spiciness, Scoville used a special process. He pureed chilies and diluted the mash with sugar water until test subjects could no longer taste the spiciness. The more capsaicin in the sample, the more sugar water was needed. If you have one gram of pure capsaicin, you need 16 million grams, i.e. 16,000 liters of water, until you can no longer feel the sharpness.
Because a 16 million unit scale is somewhat impractical, Scoville summarized it into a scale that ranges from 0 to 10. For the example just mentioned, this means that the sweet peppers are on the Scoville scale at 0, the habanero chili must therefore be classified at 10 Scoville.
Scoville Scale Does Not Apply To Every Sharpness
As already indicated above, the Scoville scale only applies to paprika fruits. It cannot be used for mustard, horseradish, radishes, or cress pepper. Because in these cases the sharpness is created by essential oils. These evaporate and volatilize and cannot, therefore, be compared with the heat of pepper plants. With the latter, the intensity of the spiciness always remains the same, even when the fruits dry out.
However, the Scoville scale is repeatedly criticized as being too imprecise. There are several reasons for this. On the one hand, it is important from which part of the plant the samples are taken. In the placenta, which is the part of the plant in which the seeds are located, significantly more capsaicin is stored than in the pulp. The seeds of the chili do not contain capsaicin, but are in contact with the placenta and are therefore also perceived as extremely hot. On the other hand, each fruit of the same type can also differ in the degree of heat.
On the other hand, each individual’s perception is different. Some tolerate spiciness better, others worse. In addition, you can train to eat spicy food by increasing the degree of spiciness over a longer period of time. And then, there are regional differences. While in Asia 50 to 250 milligrams of capsaicin are eaten per day, it is rather a rarity in European countries. The value here is just an average of 1.5 milligrams per day.
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Nowadays, hot peppers are no longer diluted with sugar water to determine the degree of spiciness. Instead, the concentration of capsaicin is determined using the chemical-analytical measuring method high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC for short). The degree of heat is still given in Scoville units.