Does the Scoville Scale Need a Modern Update?

By now you’ve probably heard of the Scoville Scale.

That’s the scale that was invented more than 100 years ago to measure the pungency of hot peppers. It’s named after a man named Wilbur Scoville, who first came up with the scale in 1912. To come up with the rankings, Scoville dried the peppers, then dissolved them in alcohol. Then, he diluted the pepper with sugar water until three out of five people could no longer taste the heat. To put it in perspective, if it takes 10,000 units of sugar water to dilute one unit of capsaicin-infused alcohol until you can no longer distinguish the heat, the pepper gets a rating of 10,000 on the Scoville Scale.

The idea of the scale was a good one in 1912, but does it need to be modernized?

While people can detect levels of capsaicin, everyone has a different perception of heat. There may also be a little taste fatigue after sampling the heat over and over again. A machine can do it more accurately. It’s called a high-performance liquid chromatograph, or rather HPLC. It does the work without the variables of taste from person to person. An HPLC separates the capsaicinoids from the rest of the pepper, then records how many there are in terms of parts per million.

The upfront cost of an HPLC is pretty hefty, but in terms of cost per sample, it’s relatively inexpensive.

Pure capsaicin has one million parts per million, and one PPM is 16 Scoville units. That’s why the scale only goes to 16 million. Keep in mind, the Carolina Reaper comes in at 2.2 million Scoville, but it may not be the hottest, superhot pepper we ever see. So, does that mean the old Scoville Scale need to be retired? That depends on who you ask. It really doesn’t matter which hot pepper scale you follow, as long as you’re enjoying the journey.

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