Today is National Hot Sauce Day. It celebrates the birthday in 1865 of Wilbur Scoville, who created a method to determine a pepper’s spiciness that is still in use today.
Scoville, an American chemist, devised the system in 1912. It measures the concentration of capsaicin, the active component that gives chilies their spicy taste, using Scoville Heat Units (SHU). Ratings range from 0 for a bell pepper to 16,000,000 for pure capsaicin.
Capsaicin content, which causes a burning sensation when it comes in contact with any tissue, is measured by dissolving a pepper in alcohol to extract its capsaicin oil, then diluting the oil in sugar water.
If a panel of five testers detects any spiciness, the mixture is diluted again until three of the five cannot discern any hotness. Heat level is measured by how many dilutions are necessary. Every instance increases the SHU, since hotter chilies must be weakened many times for no heat to be detected.
In 2013, The Guinness World Record for hottest chili pepper went to the Carolina Reaper, a cross between a ghost pepper and a red habanero created by Ed Currie of the aptly named PuckerButt Pepper Company. The Reaper’s official heat level is 1,569,300 SHU but ranges up to 2,200,000. (By comparison, Tabasco sauce has a level 0f 2,500 to 5,000.)
The Reaper was bested in 2017 by Dragon’s Breath, which clocked in at 2,480,000 SHU. Currie surged back with Pepper X, a Frankenstein’s monster at 3,180,000 SHU. Unlike Dragon’s Breath, which will only be used for medicinal purposes, Pepper X is available as a sauce dubbed The Last Dab.
Studies have shown that heat levels evoke the same pain response in spice lovers and haters and everyone in between. So why do so many of us like it? Could it predict other risk-taking behaviors? Check out this TED Ed lesson for answers.
Happy National Hot Sauce Day!