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Wilbur Scoville

Scoville Heat Unit

The most sensitive, most accurate instrument to quantify the heat produced from hot chiles? The human tongue. That's what pharmacologist Wilbur Scoville determined in 1912 when seeking a chemical test for spiciness. In the "Scoville Organoleptic Test," the tongue is the organ.

Nowadays, chemists use sophisticated liquid chromatography tests to determine the Scoville units of various peppers and sauces. What's a Scoville unit? It's the system of measurement that Wilbur devised back in 1912, a factor of how much sugar water would be needed to neutralize the heat of a given pepper. A Jalapeno rates a 5,000 in Scoville Units because it takes 5,000 parts water to one part Jalapeno to neutralize the heat. The rare and fiercesome Bhut Jolokia pepper, claimed the world's hottest, measures 1,001,304 SHUs (Scoville Heat Units).

Scoville, an employee of pharmaceutical company Parke Davis, put tongues to work comparing the heat of Jalapenos, Habaneros and Cayennes. He hired a panel of five testers, according to Dave DeWitt and Nancy Gerlach's The Whole Chile Pepper Book, to analyze, "solutions made from exact weights of chile peppers dissolved in alcohol and diluted with sugar water. The pungency was recorded in multiples of one hundred Scoville Units."

You can see the problem with this method. As lovers of hot sauce and all-things-chile, we know that different people experience spice differently. There's a tolerance, even a sort of resistance, that develops over time with exposure to hot foods. Then there's the problem of inconsistent pain thresholds. Burnt once, the palette seems to grow progressively numb as more heat is consumed. Scoville required that at least three of his five subjects agree on the ranking, not even the mathematical weight of Supreme Court decisions. You have to wonder how many times they never reached agreement.

Modern day chile heads can rest assured that the Scoville ratings assigned to various chiles and hot sauces are accurate, all variables included. Jalapenos, depending on the soil, climate and other grow conditions, vary between 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville Units. That's still a lot of water to drink after consuming a handful of chiles. And the Scoville Unit also has a safety component. Do you really want to slurp a heaping chip-scoop worth of a sauce that rates over a million units? Of course not, at least not at first, even if you wish you could. With hot sauce, easy, sometimes does it. Ask Wilbur Scoville.

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