Why are
Chile Peppers


Peppers, as we generally refer to them, are members of the Capsicum species, many of which are not hot or pungent. Two examples are the bell peppers grown in the US, as well as some paprikas grown in Europe. These varieties are used fresh, and many times used to enhance other foods with their colors. The wilder members of the Capsicum species, on the other hand, range from mildly to extremely pungent. This is due to the substance capsaicin, or, actually, a group of similar substances called capsaicinoids.

A more detailed analysis of capsaicin can be found at the Capsaicin Update by Chilemeister Dave Dewitt.

Capsaicin binds to a special class of vanilloid receptor inside our mouth called VR1 receptors. After capsaicin binds to these receptors, the sensory neuron is depolarized, and it sends along a signal indicating the presence of spicy stimuli. But here’s the strange part: VR1 receptors weren’t designed to detect capsaicin. They bind spicy food by accident. The real purpose of VR1 receptors is thermoreception, or the detection of heat. This means that they are supposed to prevent us from touching things that will burn our sensitive flesh. As a result, when the receptors are activated by capsaicin, the sensation we experience is indelibly linked to the perception of heat, to the feeling of touching or feeling something hot. But that pain is just an illusory side-effect of our confused neural receptors. There is nothing “hot” about spicy food (Unless it is served at a very high temperature of course!)

The capsaicinoids are unique compared to other spicy substances, such as piperine (black pepper) and gingerol (ginger) in that capsaicin causes a long-lasting selective desensitization to the irritant pain, as a result of repeated doses of a low concentration or a single high concentration dose. The result is an increasing ability to tolerate hotter foods.

The Scoville heat scale is the closest thing to a standard for measuring the heat in a pepper. The scale is named after its creator, American chemist Wilbur Scoville, who developed a test for rating the pungency of chili peppers. His method, which he devised in 1912, is known as the Scoville Organoleptic Test.

Scoville's method, as originally devised, used a solution of the pepper extract diluted in sugar water until the "heat" is no longer detectable to a panel of (usually five) tasters; the degree of dilution gives its measure on the Scoville scale. Thus a capsicum, sweet pepper or a bell pepper, containing no capsaicin at all, has a Scoville rating of zero, meaning no heat detectable, even undiluted. Conversely, the hottest chiles, such as habaneros, have a rating of 200,000 or more, indicating that their extract has to be diluted 200,000-fold before the capsaicin present is undetectable. The greatest weakness of the Scoville Organoleptic Test is its imprecision, because it relies on human subjectivity. there are now more scientific measurements, but they still use Scoville units. Modern meathods of measuring heat now make use of high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). This identifies and measures the heat-producing chemicals..

The following chart is an approximation of heat, used to compare the relative spiciness of peppers.

Scoville scale
Scoville Units Type of Chile Pepper
15,000,000–16,000,000 Pure capsaicin
2,000,000–5,300,000 Standard U.S. Grade pepper spray
855,000–1,041,427 Naga Jolokia
350,000–580,000 Red Savina™ Habanero
100,000–350,000 Habanero chile pepper
100,000–200,000 Rocoto Jamaican Hot Pepper
50,000–100,000 Thai Pepper
30,000–50,000 Cayenne Pepper
10,000–23,000 Serrano Pepper/td>
4,500–5,000 New Mexican
2,500–8,000 Jalapeño Pepper
1,500–2,500 Rocotillo Pepper
1,000–1,500 Poblano Pepper
500–2,500 Anaheim pepper
100–500 Pepperocini
0 No heat, Bell Pepper
0-5,000: Mild
5,000-20,000: Medium
20,000-70,000: Hot
70,000-300,000: Extremely Hot

Bear in mind that the heat of any chile pepper can vary greatly depending on a number of factors. In general, stress induced by things like lack of water can result in greatly increased heat levels. The degree of heat can vary within a single pepper, with the inner ribs and seed holding membrane being the hottest.

It is theorized that heat in chile peppers developed as a way to dissuade mammals from eating them. Chile seeds are destroyed by mammalian digestive systems. Birds, on the other hand, with simpler digestive tracts, serve to spread the seeds with the advantage of an accompanying blob of fertilizer. :-) This theory is bolstered by the fact that birds do not react to capsaicin.

The ironic thing is that what is thought to have been developed as a defense mechanism has resulted in humans being attracted to them. Instead of being a negative thing for the chile plant, it has resulted in their being spread by perversely pain loving humans all over the globe!


Do NOT touch your eyes after handling chiles, even after washing your hands very well. The oils will take a while to wear off even after the briefest touch. Contact lens users: REMOVE your contacts BEFORE you start any recipe that requires handling peppers (you don’t want to touch your eyes later trying to remove your contacts).


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