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Hot or Not: The Science of Spiciness

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with Joseph Garcia
Savory Spice Team
March 5, 2020
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Hot or Not: The Science of Spiciness

Have you ever pondered the chemical micro-reactions that happen in your mouth when consuming food? Me neither. But when it comes to the searing sensation of spicy foods, I often find myself crying “Whyyyyy?!” while eating them. Now is as good a time as any to dive into that “why” and learn about what’s going on chemically.

Capsaicin

The science behind taste is complex and beautiful — a synchronized waltz between the tongue, nose, eyes, and brain, all working together to produce our perception of flavor. The National Center for Biotechnology Information says that humans can experience around 100,000 flavors. But it turns out “spicy” is not technically a taste caused by taste buds. It’s a sensation caused by pain receptors. They react to the chemical compound found in chile peppers called capsaicin, sending signals of heat and pain to the brain. Meaning that to your nerve endings, that wasn’t a ghost pepper you just bit into — it was a hot ember! Ouch. (It’s all good, though. capsaicin doesn’t cause any direct burning or tissue damage.)

Capsaicin is found in all chile peppers and is most heavily concentrated in the pith of the fruit where the seeds are held. Why does this fiery compound even exist in peppers? It’s the plants’ method to help ensure that their seeds are eaten and dispersed by the right type of animals. Namely, birds who are immune to the effects of capsaicin as opposed to those pesky mammals who often destroy the seeds during digestion. The higher the concentration of capsaicin within the pepper, the more likely it’ll turn you into a living tea kettle.

So why would we, the smartest of all mammals, willingly consume an irritant? Other than the fact that chile peppers are delicious — ranging in flavors from sweet, tangy, fruity, smoky, citrusy, earthy, etc. – a popular theory is that they cause the brain to release pain-killing endorphins that create a euphoric feeling.

Scoville Heat Units

Chile heat is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU) on the Scoville Scale. Scientist Wilbur Scoville developed this method of measuring spiciness in 1912 by having a panel of five trained tasters sample chile pepper extracts. Peppers range anywhere from 0 SHU (bell peppers) to over 3 million SHU (Pepper X — the current spiciest pepper on record because some plant breeders just want to watch the world burn). Nowadays, Scoville Units are accurately measured through chemical analysis in a laboratory.

But sometimes the old ways are the best. And to that end, I have my own “trained” taste testers on retainer, Brand Designer Jonathan and Test Kitchen Manager Michael, to sample a series of Savory Spice’s chile offerings with increasing levels of SHU. Here is a list of all of our chile products grouped by heat level, as well as their reactions to some of them.

Savory Spice Chile Products by Heat Level

Low Heat Savory Spice Products

Low Heat - Spices for Everyone

Testers’ reactions to Pasilla Negro Chile Powder:

  • Michael: “The taste reminds me of spicy raisins, a lot of fruity flavor.”
  • Jonathan: “I don’t really taste any heat.”
Medium Heat Savory Spice Products

Medium Heat - You're Getting Warmer

Testers’ reactions to Jalapeño Chile Powder:

  • Michael: “Very bright, very earthy… almost grassy.”
  • Jonathan: “It’s not hot.”
High Heat Savory Spice Products

High Heat - For Heat Seekers

Testers’ reactions to Aji Amarillo Chile Powder:

  • Michael: “Yum… Sweet and fruity. That’s delicious.”
  • Jonathan: “I don’t feel any heat at all.”
High Heat Savory Spice Products

Scorching Heat - Daredevils Only

Testers’ reactions to Ghost Pepper Chile Powder:

  • Michael: “Definitely smoky…” *coughs* “Chocolatey…”
  • Jonathan: “OH GOD I’M DYING!” *hiccup*
  • Michael: *hiccup* “What’s with the hiccups?”
  • Jonathan: “I don’t know. I feel it in my eyes!” *hiccup* “Why did I do this?”
  • Michael: “That’s a fun fact for your blog. *hiccup* Eating a spoonful will give you the hiccups… and also make you want to die.”
  • Jonathan: “I’m sweating!” *removes hat and glasses*
  • Michael: “I’m crying, my mouth hurts so bad!”
  • Jonathan: “Uh oh. It’s coming out of my ears.”
  • Michael: “Feels like I licked an iron.”
  • Jonathan: “[Expletive deleted]!” *guzzles milk*
  • Michael: *also drinking milk* “There’s no relief…”
  • Jonathan: “I’m gonna go wash my hands… not sure why…”
  • Michael: “This is a learning experience.”
  • Jonathan: “Yeah. Never do this again. That’s the learning experience.”
  • Michael: *switches from milk to half-and-half*
  • Jonathan: “I’m trying really hard not to cry in front of you guys right now.”
  • Michael: “It’s not even crying it’s involuntary waterfalls coming out of my eyes.”
  • Jonathan: “... It’s starting to go down. Gargling the milk helps.”
  • Michael: “Gross.”
  • Jonathan: “Okay, I feel like the worst is over.”
  • Michael: “That was crazy.”

What fiery dishes will you be cooking up this spring? Tag @savoryspiceshop on Instagram with photos of your heat-tastic meals!


Comments on this Article


(guest), on May 19, 2020

That is very helpful. Could you do a similar comparison to your curries? I'm always wondering where they fall on the heat scale since my dinners feed both adults and toddlers.

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