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:
- Bell pepper: 0
- Pepperoncini: 100-500
- Poblano: 500-2,000
- Ancho: 1,000-2,000
- Anaheim: 500-2,500
- Jalapeno: 2,500-9,000
- Serrano: 8,000-22,000
- Tabasco: 30,000-50,000
- Cayenne: 30,000-50,000
- Orange Habenero: 150,000-325,000
- Naga Jolokia or “Ghost Pepper”: 800,000-1,041,000
- Law Enforcement Grade Pepper Spray: 5,300,000
- Pure Capsaicin: 15,000,000 – 16,000,000
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.
For a more complete listing of peppers and their Scoville rating, check out the list at Uncle Steve’s Hot Stuff.
And if you can’t stop it with the red hot chili peppers… this is for you.