The Science Behind the Scoville Chart

Martin SmazenkoHot PeppersLeave a Comment


To chiliheads, the Scoville heat units (SHUs) that measure the heat intensity of peppers are considered badges of honor. Pepper growers are constantly developing new varieties of peppers that ratchet up the heat to a level where they could almost be considered deadly weapons. There are also the heat seekers who are willing to push the boundaries of human endurance by eating these creations so that they can have the honor of saying they ate the world’s hottest pepper.

How Does the Scoville Chart Measure the Intensity of Peppers?

The Scoville scale is the brainchild of a pharmacist by the name of Wilbur Scoville. In 1912, Scoville was in the process of developing a heat-producing ointment. He would create an alcohol-based extract from the pepper and then dilute it until the heat could no longer be detected by the taste buds. Scoville translated this degree of dilution to heat units to serve as an indicator of the potency of a pepper. For example, it would take approximately 5,000 to 10,000 cups of water to dilute 1 cup of chipotle extract to the point that you would no longer feel the heat on your tongue.

Although we still use the scale that bears Scoville’s name, scientists now use chromatography to detect and measure the heat-producing chemicals in peppers instead of human taste buds. The capsaicinoids that give peppers their kick are separated from the peppers themselves. Once the concentration and combination of capsaicinoids are known, a mathematical formula is used to determine the pepper’s ability to produce the sensation of heat and convert that into a reading on the scale that Scoville created over a century ago.


Going Beyond the Heat:

This process of analyzing the unique combination of heat-producing alkaloids in a given pepper also allows scientists to break down the heat profile of a pepper according to the following characteristics:

  • Heat intensity
  • How quickly the heat is felt
  • Where the heat is felt in the mouth
  • Whether the heat goes away quickly or tends to linger
  • Whether the heat is considered sharp, like a pinprick, or flat, like it was painted on the tongue.

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