Statistics can be found wherever there is data available. And data can be found everywhere, from companies, to governments, to chillies.
Chilli is the name given to a fruit. Of course it is not the usual sweet fruit but one coming from plants belonging to the genus Capsicum. Also known as chilli pepper in many other countries, these fruits are popular for their particular strong hot taste. Chillies have been consumed by humans for a long time, particularly in the Americas, where evidence has been found of cultivated chilli domesticated more than 6,000 years ago. It is really not a surprise, since chillies have a wonderful, distinctive taste that easily converts ordinary food into something overwhelming. It is still a vital ingredient in Mexican cuisine. And if you dare to easily dismiss Mexican food, just consider that it is, alongside French cuisine, one of the few cuisines added by UNESCO to its lists of the world's "intangible cultural heritage”.
When your mouth is on fire after eating chilli, the guilty party is called Capsaicin. Capsaicin is the active component in Chilli peppers, an irritant that produces a sensation of burning in any tissue with which it comes into contact with, including your mouth. The brain responds by flushing the body with water, in order to stop the fire, which is the reason why after consuming a particularly hot chilli pepper some people start to sweat, their nose runs and tears come out of their eyes.
Different chillies have different amounts of Capsaicin, and this particular fact was used by Wilbur Scoville, an American pharmacist who developed The Scoville scale, a measurement of the spicy heat (or piquancy) of a chilli pepper. This ingenious method provides a measure of the hotness of a particular chilli based on the levels of capsaicinoid content within it, measured as the number of Scoville heat units (SHU).
Scoville's method of measuring the levels of Capsaicin was rather ingenious and courageous. It involved a brave panel of usually five people tasting diluted samples of solutions made from a measured amount of dried pepper dissolved in alcohol and diluted with sugar water. An alcohol extract of the Capsaicin oil is added incrementally to the solutions until the heat is just detectable by the panelists. The degree of dilution gives its measure on the Scoville scale.
This scales starts at 0 for peppers containing no Capsaicin at all, such as Bell peppers. The numbers go up as the chilli become more “dangerous”. Jalapeño pepper, one of the most renowned chillies, has a Scoville's number of between 3,500 and 8,000. The number varies depending on cultivation and preparation. Tabasco pepper gets between 30,000 and 50,000 Scoville heat units.
The spiciest chilli I've ever tried is the Habanero chilli, one of the hottest used in traditional Mexican cuisine. Habanero chilli has a rating that oscillates between 100,000 and 350,000 Scoville heat units, with a particular variety reaching over 580,000. But that is still very far from the hottest chilli ever cultivated. That honor is held by the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper. With its rating of 1,463,700 Scoville Heat Units, it sits comfortably in the Guinness Book of World Records. Personally, I'm not very tempted to try it out, especially considering that this chilli is so strong that those who handle it must wear protective gloves. It is also said that exposure to the eye when handling this pepper could cause temporary blindness.
Since Scoville's scale is more than 90 years old, it is not surprising than some other measures have been proposed to measure heat intensity in a more scientific manner, one that involves even more statistics. The current approach uses something called High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC). This method first identifies and measures the concentration of heat-producing chemicals. Those numbers are then used in a mathematical formula that weights them according to their relative capacity to produce a sensation of heat. This method yields results, not in Scoville units, but in American Spice Trade Association (ASTA) pungency units. A measurement of one part Capsaicin per million corresponds to about 15 Scoville units. Measuring the heat in chillies is actually a more important matter than you may think. In fact, these scales have found more applications lately outside the kitchen. For instance, pepper sprays used by law enforcements are cataloged using Scoville heat units. Most law enforcement pepper sprays have a “hotness” that ranges from 500,000 to 2 million SHU. Heat intensity scales have also been important in the development of Capsaicin based topical analgesics. And of course, it has been crucial for a good number of alimentary research. The scales have been used for research focused on optimizing environmental factors for producing chillies. They have also been useful for published studies that deal with the genetic improvement of plant species.
And you thought that burning your mouth wouldn't yield to anything useful...