What makes Chillies hot?

What makes Chillies hot?Explosive stuff!

Ever wondered what makes Chillis hot? The answer lies in that they contain a compound called capsaicin. Nature intended Capsaicin to protect Chillies from predators. Interestingly though, it seems that this applies only to vertebrates, as birds happily eat them.  Chillies do not affect them. Indeed, birds are attracted to consuming Chillies because of their bright colours. This fact means birds have helped spread the growth of Chillies around the world (the by taking seeds they have eaten on their journeys). Humans, for similar reasons, are also enthusiastic fans, but not without the pain factor!

Wilbur Scoville was an American pharmacist who in 1912 devised a method of measuring the heat levels of Chillies. The method involved capsaicin being extracted from dried hot peppers with alcohol, and then being diluted in sugared water.

Image: Wilber Scoville
The man who created a method to rate the heat of chillies

A panel of five trained men would be given progressively decreased dilutions of the extract until at least three could not detect the presence of capsaicin. The heat levels of different varieties were determined by the amount of dilution required to reach a level of non-detection.  In doing so, each variety could be rated in terms of 100 Schoville heat units or SHU.

Modern technology has more than kept up with what makes Chillies hot. Currently, ratings (which are far more accurate) are performed using high-performance liquid chromatography. The results of this method are more precise because they are not dependent on a subjective perception of heat, but rather on the scientific analysis of capsaicin levels.

The chart below indicates the relative strength of some of the Chillies found in the world today. Thank goodness for modern-day equipment. With the heat levels of some modern-day Chillies, most of which weren’t around in Professor Schoville’s days, can you imagine what the panel would have to have gone through to test heat levels using their tongues alone?

Scoville Rating Chart

Image: Scoville rating chart

Notes: While the Dragon’s Breath is listed as the world’s hottest in this list, this fact still needs to be officially confirmed. The Carolina Reaper is officially the world’s hottest Chilli. The Dragon’s breath has reportedly been tested at the level indicated above, but this is subject to final confirmation. Both certainly contain enough of the stuff that makes Chillies hot!

While the mildest Chillies are often referred to as bell peppers, this is more a reference to their shape than their real name. A better way to call them would be sweet peppers.

Update: It has been reported that the Dragons’ breath has been pushed into 2nd place by a Chilli called Pepper X. It was bred by the creator of the Carolina Reaper – Ed Curry. It apparently has been tested to have a Scoville rating of 3180000, but this too is subject to official confirmation

The worlds hottest Chillies