Digestive Health

Updated 04 July 2014

Hottest chilli peppers on earth

Just how hot is a hot chilli? Here’s more about why chillies are so hot, how to quench the fire, and just some interesting chilli facts.


Just how hot is a hot chilli? It turns out it’s not that easy to measure. But it ranges from the blow-your-head off variety to stuff you can feed a toddler. Here’s more about why chillies are so hot, how to quench the fire, and just some interesting chilli facts.

The Scoville heat scale
In 1912 Wilbur Scoville put together a heat scale to measure the heat of chilli peppers and hot sauce. The so-called Scoville scale lists a sweet bell pepper as measuring a naught on the scale, and pure capsaicin as measuring 16,000,000 heat units. To put this into perspective, Tabasco pepper sauce measures 30,000 – 50,00 heat units.

Recently the Guinness World Records gave  the award of the “hottest peppers on earth”  to the Carolina Reaper peppers grown by Ed Currie in Fort Mill, South Carolina. But how accurately can this be measured?

It is very difficult to determine the most potent red pepper in the world.  Paul Bosland, director of the Chile Pepper Insitute at New Mexico State University, is quoted as saying: “The heat of a pepper depends not just on the plant’s genetics, but also where it is grown.”

“Other factors such as type of cultivar, climate, soil composition, rainfall, fertiliser, method of harvesting, type of storage after harvesting, batch of reagents used for the test, calibration of the instruments, standard used for the specific test, and so forth also all play a role in the results which are obtained when one is testing the composition of a given food”, says dietitian Dr Ingrid Van Heerden.

So where does that leave us when it comes to testing foods and discovering that their constitution differs from what is stated on the label?

There are so many factors that affect the testing process that no one can guarantee that product X contains precisely the nutrients and quantities specified on a food label. Because nature is not always consistent and each living entity is unique, it is not possible to be 100% precise when it comes to describing what a food contains, according to Van Heerden.

Why chillies are so hot

The chemical in chillies that makes your mouth burn is called ‘capsaicin’.

Scientists believe the chilli plant developed this strategy to protect itself from being eaten by mammals. A mammal’s digestive system completely destroys the chilli seed, and threatens the survival of the plant.

Birds, on the other hand, can eat chillies without any ill effects at all. They help to spread the seeds of the chilli plant. A US study has also shown that hot chillies are better at defending themselves against a harmful fungus that attacks the plant.

Other interesting chilli facts
- Capsaicin is hydrophobic, which means that it doesn’t dissolve in water. That’s why drinking a glass of water makes no difference to a mouth that’s on fire after you’ve eaten strong chillies.
- Capsaicin does dissolve in fat, which is why a glass of milk does relieve the burnin
- In India and Zimbabwe farmers are known to plant a barrier crop of chillies to discourage elephants from eating their crops.
- Capsaicin actually does no harm to the human body, but tricks the central nervous system into releasing endorphins.
- The seeds are not the hottest part of the chilli – it is the white pith that surrounds them.
- Chillies are thought to be the world’s oldest condiment and there is evidence that it was eaten in south and central America as long as 9000 years ago.

(Sources: chilliworld.com, Health24; worldofchillies.com)

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Dr. Estelle Wilken is a Senior Specialist in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology at Tygerberg Hospital. She obtained her MBChB in 1976, her MMed (Int) in 1991 and her gastroenterology registration in 1995.

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