General questions and fun facts about hot peppers.
Chili pepper is a very broad term. The plant is capable of mutating very quickly, and as a result, there are a ton of varieties—there are over 140 different kinds growing in Mexico alone. The environment also impacts what the pepper will look and taste like: soil, temperature, and weather all need to be taken into account.
There is a very strict and definitive scale for ranking your pepper’s hotness. Called the Scoville scale, it’s named after a pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville. Scoville wanted a standard measurement with which to compare pepper hotness, but found the only way to do so was by human taste; the tongue could detect lower concentrations of capsaicin than machines could. To perform the test, dried pepper is soaked in alcohol and then diluted in sugar water. The solution is diluted more and more until a panel of five trained testers can no longer detect it. The more dilution needed, the more units of heat the pepper has. Mercifully, this method isn’t used much anymore. Instead, scientists use high-performance liquid chromatography to extract the capsaicin and calculate a corresponding Scoville score. But true chili-heads argue that this method understates the real heat by around 30 percent compared to the real Scoville.
The more mild bell peppers fall within the 1-100 SHU (Scoville Heat Units) side of the scale, while hotter peppers like cayenne are more like 30,000 – 50,000 SHU. If you’re curious about what’s at the very end of the spectrum, the spiciest pepper known to man is called the Carolina Reaper, which can get up to 2.2 million SHU.
In addition to making your tongue hurt, capsaicin can also help unblock your sinuses. While this is not a good fix if you’re having trouble breathing (please see a doctor if this is the case!), a spicy pepper can help open things up and relieve congestion. The peppers keep your mucous thin, and as a result, lower your chances of a sinus infection. While there’s some evidence that suggests chili pepper sprays help your stuffy nose, don’t go buying a bunch of chilis just yet: Most evidence is largely anecdotal, and some spicy foods can actually aggravate sinusitis.
The two spicy peppers are known for having their own distinct tastes, but that’s a result of how they’re treated after being harvested. Chipotle peppers are really just red jalapenos that have been smoke-dried.
The Trinidad Moruga Scorpion is the second hottest pepper in the world, and while it was being test-harvested, the capsaicin levels were so high that it soaked through the harvesters’ latex gloves onto their hands, a first for the experimenters. The extremely hot pepper can be 1.2 million SHU, so it’s not hard to see how this fiery food could do some damage. Taste testers described the taste as something that builds and builds until it’s absolutely unbearable.
Drop the band-aids and run to the kitchen: A popular natural remedy, when applied topically, cayenne pepper can help stop bleeding. The cayenne can either be sprinkled on the injury directly or diluted in water and soaked into a bandage. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the powder helps equalize blood pressure, meaning less blood will pump out of the wound and it will clot faster. Some even believe that the pepper will help alleviate pain—something normal bandages can’t do
The best way to ease the burning sensation is to drink milk, eat yogurt, ice cream or any dairy product. A substance found in dairy products known as casein, helps to disrupt the reaction. This substance which is a lipophilic phosphoprotein, acts like a detergent and literally strips capsaicin from its receptor binding site. If you get the oil on your skin you may want to rub it with rubbing alcohol first then soak in milk, this seems to alleviate the burning. If you get it in your eyes the only thing you can do is repeatedly rinse with water or saline. Be very careful when handling hot chiles, especially species like chinense where the habanero comes from there are reports of these chiles actually blistering the skin. Gloves and eye protection are recommended when handling or peeling any types of super hot chile. Also read our “Put Out The Fire” page.
Capsaicin also has a reputation for relieving certain kinds of pain, and is a widely used ingredient in over-the-counter topical creams and ointments for arthritis. On the heart-health front, previous studies have suggested chiles can help reduce blood pressure, high cholesterol, and the formation of blood clots.
Contrary to what you may have heard, provided you give them enough light and proper growing conditions, you can grow peppers successfully indoors. Some varieties, in fact, can make great (and quite colorful) houseplants!
Here is a list of Scoville Heat Units (SHU) of the most common chili peppers and hot sauces so you can get an understanding of how they relate to each other.
- Bell Pepper – 0 Scoville Heat Units (SHU)
- Anaheim Peppers – 500 – 1,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU)
- Poblano Pepper – 1,000 – 2,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU)
- Jalapeno Peppers – 2,500 – 8,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU)
- Serrano Peppers – 8,000 – 22,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU)
- Cayenne Peppers – 30,000 – 50,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU)
- Habanero Peppers – 150,000 – 325,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU)
- Ghost Peppers – 1,000,000 + Scoville Heat Units (SHU)
- Carolina Reaper Chili Pepper – 2.2 Million + Scoville Heat Units (SHU)