I’ve always been an aficionado of hot peppers, and for years I considered myself fairly adept at handling the heat. My education concerning these fiery fruits was incomplete, however. I was a child playing in tide pools, oblivious to the ocean waiting just off the beach.
You may have heard of the now-famous measurement of a pepper’s potency, called a Scoville heat unit. But do you know what it is? Well, imagine your favorite pepper pureed and put into a cup. Put that in a bowl — depending on how hot your favorite pepper is, you may need a rather large bowl. Now add one cup of sugar water. Taste.
If you can detect no heat at all, you have your measurement of one Scoville heat unit. If it takes two cups of sugar water, your pepper scores two Scovilles. If it takes a thousand cups to dilute it to no heat, your measurement is a thousand units. At least in the days before a test called “high performance liquid chromatography”. This test is based on the original method of measurement, but now it detects the amount of the heat-creating chemical, called capsaicin.
Just what does this chemical do? As soon as it touches your tongue — or eyes, or even skin — it triggers our pain receptors. You’re not actually being burned, but your body reacts as if it is. Blood vessels dilate, sweat breaks out, and you experience a painful sensation in your mouth. Depending on your tolerance and the heat of the pepper, even more violent reactions can occur. Think drooling, vomiting, and trouble breathing. It can get bad. Really, really bad.
Of course, we have to take things into perspective, and those Scoville units help us do just that. If you’ve ever had a jalapeno, you’ve eaten a pepper that averages about 5,000 units, but can top out at 10,000. That’s 625 gallons of sugar water to dilute that one cup of jalapeno.
If you want it hotter, the Serrano you can buy at the grocery can reach 25,000 Scovilles. Not hot enough? The Tabasco pepper — used to make the famous sauce — can hit 50,000 units. That’s 3,125 gallons of water to make it heat-free. For the serious hotties, flirt with a habanero, coming in at 350,000.
This heat level might seem absurd, but unlike my wimpy bravado, there are folks out there who are breeding peppers that make habaneros seem like ice cubes. And then they eat them.
The Trinidad scorpion has long been on the top of the hot list, with a scorching one million units. Whoa. The ghost pepper is just slightly hotter. The Komodo dragon comes in at 1.4 million, beating them both. Then comes the scorpion’s big brother, the Moruga scorpion. Two million. That’s 125,000 gallons of sugar water to dilute one cup of it. And even the Moruga is not the top pepper. Right now — and subject to change next year when someone breeds a hotter one — is the Carolina Reaper. At 2.2 million. That’s 220 times hotter than a jalapeno.
Stepping back, one might consider that we humans are an odd lot, trying to breed a plant to cause us ever-increasing agonies of pain. Why, one might ask? Well, as odd as it sounds, pepper enthusiasts will tell you that the pain makes you feel good. That’s right. Pain releases endorphins, and endorphins make us feel rather pleasant.
So there it is. Perhaps the whole mystery of human nature, of our need for dramas and wars and compassionate acts, is all exemplified by the paradox of painfully pleasureful peppers.