Peppers are pretty amazing things. They come in all shapes, colors, and sizes — as well as each having their own flavor characteristics.
Of course, one of the most important traits of a pepper is how “hot” it is.
Some like it hot
Peppers get their heat from capsaicin, a chemical compound that stimulates nerve receptors and produces a burning sensation in any tissue it comes in contact with — and I do mean any. (Tip: Don’t chop jalapenos and then go to the bathroom without washing your hands first. Do not ask how I know this.)
Since the heat level of a pepper is tied to the amount of capsaicin it contains, it’s actually possible to quantify how hot a pepper actually is. This is where the Scoville scale comes in to play. The higher the number of Scoville heat units at which a pepper is rated, the more capsaicin it contains, and the hotter it is. Simple, no?
The heat is on: The hot list
Here’s a list of some of the more commonly known peppers (and pepper defense sprays, for reference) in order from least hot to most, alonge with the Scoville scale score for each:
This is, of course, only a partial list. Peppers can vary in heat due to variations in growing conditions, soil, and weather — but generally tend to fall between the values listed. That means it’s entirely possible to eat a habenero and say, “Hey, this isn’t too bad,” then have a different one later and state, “Oh my god, my sinuses are melting — help!”
So what’s the attraction?
Frederick A Senese, a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Frostburg State University in Maryland says, “People that eat lots of spicy capsaicin-rich foods build up a tolerance to it. The incentive: a small jolt of capsaicin excites the nervous system into producing endorphins, which promote a pleasant sense of well-being. The endorphin lift makes spicy foods mildly addictive (and for some, an obsession).”
Capsaicin also has some real-world applications. It can be used to eliminate pests (including insects and rodents), and — oddly enough — can also help alleviate pain. “Exposure to capsaicin lowers sensitivity to pain, and it is applied as a counter irritant in the treatment of arthritis and other chronically painful conditions,” says Senese.