Scoville Heat Units (SHU's) is the measurement of the “hotness” of pepper.
All types of chili peppers, including green peppers, jalapenos, and habaneros, all contain an unusually powerful compound found in no other plant, an alkaloid called capsaicin.
Capsaicin is the horticultural term for the genus that chili peppers are classified. A single drop of tasteless and odorless capsaicin in 100,000 drops of water is very noticeable. In fact, capsaicin can be detected by humans at one part per million.
In 1912, pharmacologist Wilbur Scoville developed a standard for measuring the power of capsaicin: the Scoville Organaleptic Test.
Scoville measured exact weights of chili peppers and dissolved the capsaicin in alcohol. This solution was then diluted with sugar water until it was no longer detectable to the human palate. A panel of five taste testers would taste the solution and three of them had to agree before a value was assigned. If, for example, it took 1,000 parts of water to one part of capsaicin, it was said to have 1,000 Scoville Heat Units.
This method was useful for calculating the temperature of peppers used in many pharmaceutical products such has heat rubs. Today, high-performance liquid chromatography is used to measure the capsaicin content in peppers. It measures capsaicin levels in parts per million which is then converted to Scoville Heat Units (SHU’s). The pepper scale ranges from zero Scoville Heat Units for a bell pepper to 5,000 or so SHU’s for a jalapeno, to a whopping 200,000 to 300,000 SHU’s for a habanero. Pure capsaicin is 15,000,000 SHU’s.
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