Decoding the Scoville Scale

It’s possible you’ve heard of the Scoville Scale, but do you know what it means?

For hot pepper lovers it’s the key to deciding which flavors you want to try, and perhaps even which flavors you need to work your way up to. Essentially, the Scoville Scale was originally developed as a way to measure the heat of hot peppers based on their spice. Capsaicin, of course, is the compound found in hot peppers that naturally makes them so hot. The scale was developed in the early 1900s by a man named Wilbur Scoville. He used real people to sample sugar water and ground pepper, gradually diluting it along the way until participants could no longer taste heat.

Sure, the old way was subjective

But it resulted in what we still call Scoville Heat Units, or rather SHUs. Things have changed a bit over the past 100 years or so, but other things have stayed the same. Now, instead of using people to do the test, capsaicin levels are measured by machines, then the results are converted into SHUs. To put the heat scale in perspective, a bell pepper has zero SHU so it’s at the very bottom of the scale. On the other hand, pure capsaicin is at the very top with 16 million SHU. Everything else falls somewhere in the middle.

If you like jalapenos, it’s interesting to note they rank pretty low on the scale

It goes up from there. In fact, some of the hottest peppers on the planet are essentially hundreds of times spicier than the average jalapeno. A red habanero pepper falls somewhere in the range of 100,000 to 325,000 SHU. A Carolina Reaper is somewhere in the range of 1.5 to 2.2 million, but don’t be fooled by the number compared to pure capsaicin. The Carolina Reaper is extremely hot, and a few years ago was declared the world’s hottest chili pepper.

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