Wilbur Scoville: Measuring the Spiciness of Hot Peppers

Wilbur Scoville is the namesake for the Scoville scale of measuring the spiciness of foods like peppers

Wilbur Scoville, esteemed as today’s Google doodle to celebrate his 151st birthday, would possibly be amazed to learn that in 2020 he is best remembered for his research on hot peppers that is the namesake of Scoville heat units.

In 1865, born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Scoville was not a chef; he was a pharmacist. And during his lifetime he was famous for the textbook “The Art of Compounding,” which was used as reference material until the 1960s. But along with his academic research, he did practical work in the laboratories of the Parke-Davis pharmaceutical company, which was America’s largest drug manufacturer in its day. Wilbur has created an easy way to measure hot pepper stimuli.

We know that pepper is spicy. But how hot are they? The Scoville scale helps to evaluate peppers. This is the simplest definition of the Scoville scale. It is an indicator of the thermal rating of peppers. The scale goes from no heat to souring hot.

Origin of the Scoville Scale

He created his signature Scoville sensory test to measure the dilution of ground pepper. Above all, Scoville wanted to answer the question, “How many equal parts of sugar water should be added to a piece of ground pepper of the same size?”

He had a board of tasters. They took the test and sipped a mixture of pepper and sugar water in a few days of testing. Although, the trial stopped when they did not notice the warmth. Imagine they tasted the peppers until their mouths burned from the peppers on the ground.

This is how the Scoville heating unit came out. They are what you see on a scale. For example, if you see something in the 1500 SHU, that means that 1500 cups of diluted water no longer feels burning.

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What Is the Wilbur Scoville Scale?

The Scoville scale is a tool for estimating the spiciness and threshold of peppers. Additionally, the scale measures the amount of capsaicin (a compound that causes spicy heat) in pepper and assigns a numerical score in the Scoville Heat Units (SHU).

Use of the Scoville Scale

To get more accurate results, scientists use high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) to determine the exact concentration of capsaicin in the pepper. HPLC technology measures pepper’s spiciness in the American Spice Trade Association (ASTA). You can enter this number in an expression that converts to Scoville units. Ultimately, the process has changed since Wilbur Scoville, but he uses his Scoville scale to measure pepper heat.

Scoville Scale and Chemicals

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The hottest chile on the Scoville scale is the Carolina Reaper, with a Scoville rating of 2.2 million Scoville units, followed by Trinidad Moruga Scorpion Pepper Scoville rating of about 1.6 million Scoville units (compared to 16 million Scoville units). Other scorching and uplifting peppers include Naga Jolokia or Bat Jorokia and their growers, Ghost Chili and Dorset Naga. However, other plants produce spicy chemicals that can be measured using the Scoville scale, such as black pepper piperine and ginger gingerol. The “hottest” chemical is resiniferatoxin from Euphorbia, a resin type that is a cactus-like plant found in Morocco. The Scoville score of resiniferatoxin is 1000 times that of pure pepper capsaicin or more than 16 billion Scoville.

How to Make Hot Peppers Stop Burning

Capsaicin is not water-soluble, so drinking cold water will not relieve pepper burns. Capsaicin dissolves and spreads in the mouth as you drink water. Molecules bind to pain receptors, so the secret is to neutralize alkaline capsaicin with acidic foods and drinks (such as soda and citrus) or surround it with fatty foods (such as sour cream and cheese).

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About the Author

Eshka-Ne Kumar

Eshka-Ne Kumar

Eshka is a Growth Strategist at Gooroo, a tutoring membership and online learning platform that matches students to tutors perfect for them based on their unique learning needs. Gooroo offers math, English, ESL, Spanish tutoring, and more.