Capsaicin is what makes a chile pepper spicy/hot or what scientists prefer to call pungent. The more capsaicin in a pepper, the hotter it is. The hotness of a pepper is measured in Scoville Heat Units, or SHU. The higher the SHU, the hotter the pepper.
Capsaicin refers to a group of 22 known naturally occurring proteins called capsaicinoids. The burning sensation they cause is not a function of our taste buds, but instead, the result of irritation to the transient receptor potential channel, or TRPV1. TRPV1 contributes to heat sensation, which is likely why it can trigger compensating bodily responses likely sweating. In addition to being present in the mouth, this receptor is also present in the digestive system and the skin, explaining the various sensations the human body can experience when exposed to capsaicin.
Interestingly, only mammals are affected by this sensation, while birds and insects are believed to be immune. Capsaicin proteins are also antioxidant carotenoids and are believed by many to possess a number of health benefits. Unfortunately (fortunately for some?), capsaicin is not water soluble, so drinking water doesn't help if you find yourself in pepper overload. Though, it is soluble in either fat or alcohol.
Capsaicin is not evenly distributed on a pepper. Typically, the lower tip of the pepper has the least heat, while the white pulp attached to the seeds has the most.
The Scoville Scale was invented by Wilbur Scoville in 1912 to measure the pungency or heat level of a chile pepper. People commonly refer a peppers Scoville rating in SHU, or Scoville Heat Units. Originally, it was a subjective test that measured how much sugar water was needed when mixed with a pepper's extracted capsaicinoids to eliminate the heat. Being subjective and producing potentially high variability, High-Performance Liquid Chromatography, HPLC, is now used. Though, converting those readings back to the Scoville scale poses some issues and debate on the proper method and conversion factors.The scale ranges from 0 SHU (no heat, Bell Pepper) to 16 SHU million (pure capsaicin). Jalapenos clock in around 10,000 SHU, while Habaneros are in the 100k-350k range. The title of the World's Hottest Pepper currently belongs to the Carolina Reaper with 2.2 million SHU. Curious to see where your favorite pepper ranks? Cayenne Diane has a pretty comprehensive list of Scoville rankings.
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