By JAN WIESE-FALES
Sunday, August 8, 2010
Stars twinkle, earthquakes shake and chili peppers burn, all on their own magnitude scales — astronomical, Richter and Scoville, respectively. The first and the last of these scales were based on human observation. But using a seismograph, Charles Richter developed a system of mathematical measurements for earthquake amplitude in 1935. On the Richter Scale, each ascending numerical designation — on a scale of 1 to 10 — releases 10 times more energy than the previous number.
The astronomical scale, first proposed by Greek astronomer and mathematician Hipparchus more than 2000 years ago, measures the amount of observable light given off by a celestial body; the greater the light, the lower a star’s or planet’s integer designation. The sun was assigned a -27 magnitude, and +6 was designated as the magnitude limit perceivable by the naked eye, with a 2.5 difference in brightness between magnitudes.
It was chemist Wilbur Scoville who devised the chili pepper heat magnitude scale in 1912. As a young man working for a drug company, he was investigating possible health benefits attributed to eating hot peppers. Wishing to quantify pepper pungency for his research, he devised the Scoville Organoleptic Test.
Organoleptic is a term used to describe sensory — smell, color, texture and, in this case, taste — stimuli. Scoville’s test, using human subjects, involved measuring just how much a particular pepper’s heat had to be diluted to be detectable. He started out with an extremely diluted sugar water solution and kept adding pepper extract until the tasters felt the burn. For instance, one unit of a particular pepper’s essence, perceptible in 500 units of sugar water, has a Scoville rating of 500.
Not all chili peppers, members of the Capsicum family, are hot. Bell peppers, pimento peppers and Italian sweet peppers — my personal favorite food — have Scoville ratings of zero. Various capsaici-
noid compounds, concentrated in peppers’ seeds and fleshy ribs, are responsible for their pungency, and different pepper varieties contain differing combinations and amounts of these compounds.
At the blistering end of the Scoville scale is pure capsaicin, the most pungent of the pepper compounds, with a rating of 16 million units. It has been called the “suicide of hot foods,” and even the tiniest bit will probably make you sick and can potentially stop your heart.
Most of the peppers in our garden are sweets, but we are fond of poblanos, with Scoville ratings of 1,000 to 1,500; jalapeños, rated at 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville units; and also have grown serranos, which can be measured at anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 units. I’ve noticed there is even a difference in how hot peppers are on the same plant.
Habanero peppers were once considered to pack the most heat, but India’s Bhut Jolokia is now recognized as the hottest of them all with a Scoville unit rating over 1 million. It is 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce.
Capsaicinoids are not water soluble, so drinking water won’t put out the flames ignited by peppers. Whole milk is a better choice.
Scoville was looking at chilies’ potential to stimulate digestion, and over the years, many health benefits have been attributed to chili peppers, including treatment of headaches, sinusitis and even prostate cancer. A study published in Cell Metabolism last week found that capsaicin improved blood vessel function and lowered blood pressure in rats and mice.
Capsaicin also has been shown to effectively reduce osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis pain when applied in a topical lotion with a 0.025 percent concentration.
These days, the human taste buds that formed the Scoville scale have fallen out of favor for measuring chili peppers’ heat. High-performance liquid chromatography is used instead. It can measure the varying amounts of capsaicinoids in each pepper and also can accurately gauge a pepper’s total heat.
Science trumps the Richter earthquake scale, too. Seismologists are replacing that scale, which measures damage, with the moment magnitude scale (MMS), which measures energy release. Whereas the Richter uses a base of 10, the MMS uses a base of 30, though the results are numerically similar, so we won’t notice.
However, on a consumer scale of one to 10, the Scoville scale is a 10 with those of us who love peppers, and chromatography results are generally converted back into Scoville heat units for labeling purposes. But we’d enjoy eating them either way.
Jan Wiese-Fales is a Master Gardener who lives and pulls weeds at Mole Hill in rural Howard County. You can reach her email@example.com.
Filed Under: Health Benefits