The Scoville Addiction, Endorphins.
OK, I admit it. I’m addicted to hot sauces and fiery foods. I add some kind of chili, whether it be hot sauce, dry spice or fresh peppers, to every single meal I eat. There’s a good reason for this and, for those of us who enjoy eating fiery foods, the reason is obvious. It makes us feel better.
The active component in chili peppers is a substance called capsaicin. This is found predominantly in the membranes and placental tissue which holds the seeds. However, contrary to popular belief it is not the actual seeds themselves. When consuming fiery foods, capsaicin comes into contact with the nerves in your mouth. It’s an irritant and it tastes hot, so pain signals are sent to your brain. Your brain responds by releasing endorphins which are natural painkillers that resemble opiates in the way that they produce a sense of well-being and euphoria. Your mouth may be on fire but you feel good. It is this that also gives chili its addictive quality. You remember the good feeling and actively crave more of the same.
Over time your tolerance to the heat builds and you turn to even hotter foods to give you the same feeling. So, the hotter the food, the more endorphins released and the better you feel, simple!
Wilbur and Scientific Stuff.
How hot is HOT? In 1912 an American chemist by the name of Wilbur Scoville set about finding the answer to this very question. The test he devised will be know as the Scoville Organoleptic Test.
The test consisted of diluting chili pepper extract with sugar syrup until the heat was no longer detectable to a panel of tasters. The degree of dilution then gave its measure on the Scoville Scale.
Therefore, a bell pepper which contains no capsaicin at all has a Scoville rating of zero.
At the other end of the scale, the Red Savina Habanero pepper has a rating of 350,000 – 580,000 Scoville units. Once the extract has been diluted by 350,000 times we can no longer detect the capsaicin.
Despite looking a bit like Tintin with a dead rat on his top lip, good old Wilbur was undoubtedly a top bloke, but the biggest flaw in his method of testing was the fact that it relied on human subjectivity and, as we know, we’re all different and what’s hot to one is not necessarily hot to another.
The Scientific Bit
To measure the pungency of peppers nowadays. We use a method known as High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC).
HPLC identifies and measures the heat-producing chemicals in peppers with a mind-boggling mathematical formula containing an array of letters and numbers. Probably by a University body with a brain the size of a planet. I reckon even Stephen Fry would be out of his league here, this is more Stephen Hawking territory.
Personally, I prefer Wilbur’s method. Sure it’s not perfect, but the guy is a legend in the world of chili and what’s more, he didn’t rely on a laboratory full of machines and a bionic version of Carol Vorderman to work out the results.
He just took normal people and melted their faces for his own amusement research.
A man after my own heart. Fair play to you Wilbur.