Chili Pepper Blog What Makes Them Spicy?

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Bring on the Heat

We humans are funny creatures. As we melt in the summer heat, some of us still like to add some heat to our food. In the culinary world, the hot, spicy nature of chiles and horseradish is called pungency, and its flavor that has been prized by humanity for millenia, especially in hot climates. But from where does this hot spiciness come? For millions of years plants have been scaring off predators with a variety of self made chemicals, which can range from merely irritating to downright lethal. Oddly, it is these very same chemicals that humanity prizes. Caffeine and nicotine have notably shaped history, but during the hot summer months we seek out capsaicinoids.

Capsaicinoids are the chemical fire found in spicy peppers. While not actually producing heat, these chemicals trick the body into thinking it is hot by activating our pain and temperature sensory pathways. While usually tolerated by humans, this is often enough to deter smaller animals from eating the pepper. However, there is an interesting exception: birds. Birds have slightly different sensory channels than mammals do, allowing birds to eat the spicy seeds without feeling the heat. This is actually beneficial to the pepper plant. Generally, a seed is destroyed by digestion or simply the act of chewing. However, a pepper seed can survive its journey through a bird’s digestive tract. As a result, the seed is inevitably “passed” along with a small personal pile of fertilizer. It’s amazing that a plant can produce a chemical so specific as to protect it from predation without hindering its ability to spread its seeds.

There are a variety of chemicals in the capsaicinoid family, which gets its name from the most famous member: capsaicin. On its own, capsaicin usually makes up about 70% of a pepper’s capsaicinoid content with the other two most prevalent being dihydrocapsaicin and norihydrocapcaisin. It is the specific capsaicinoid content and ratio that gives each type of pepper its own unique heat. This is why some peppers burn the moment they hit your taste buds and others start mild only to slowly build into an inferno.

Currently, the most popular measure of pungency is the Scoville Heat Scale. The methodology was developed by Wibur Scoville in 1912 and involved giving expert tasters a pre-measured amount of pepper dissolved in sugar water. Then the pepper extract was diluted and tasted again, repeating the process until the heat of the pepper could no longer be detected. The number of dilutions is the measure of a pepper’s pungency in Scoville Heat Units (SHU.) If this process seems imprecise, that’s because it is. Critics of the Scoville scale have pointed out that taste is subjective, even for the same person from day to day. Tasters can experience sensory fatigue, especially when testing hotter peppers that require more dilutions. Research into the Scoville test has shown that results can vary widely from one laboratory to the next. Today’s food scientists use a process called High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) to measure the actual capsaicinoid content of a pepper in parts per million. Despite being more accurate, HPLC is less widely used than the Scoville test. Results from HPLC are often converted into SHU because of this familiarity.

The human interest in pungency has produced more than just scales to measure it. Mother Nature started making spicy peppers, but humanity has been breeding plants with more and more capsaicinoids resulting in one of the most dangerous spices in the world. According to the Guiness Book of World Records, the official hottest pepper is the Carolina Reaper which averages 1.6 million SHU, but has been recorded as high as 2.2 million SHU. This pepper is the pride and joy of Ed Currie, who has been breeding peppers for over 25 years in South Carolina. In 2012, Currie quit his full time job to focus on his peppers, a move that has him poised to break his own record. There is a lot of chatter in the culinary world about Currie’s newest creation Pepper X, which is rumored to measure over 3 million SHU!

You won’t find anything quite that hot at Marketspice, but we do have a broad variety of ground chiles. You can start out mild with one of our many Paprika powders or challenge your taste buds with the scorching Ghost chile. Just be sure to wear gloves, and whatever you do, do NOT touch your eyes!

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