The Ardent Epicure

An Ode to the Pleasures of Food

11:59 PM

Food of the Week - Capsaicin

Posted by Truffle Shuffle


While capsaicin is not a "food," per se, as in something we would normally eat in and of itself, it is something that many of us ingest regularly, and it helps to provide a lot of the powerful flavor and kick to many of our foods.  Without capsaicin, the world of food would be a much duller place!

What Is It?
Capsaicin is the component in hot peppers that makes them "hot".  Ever bite into a jalapeño or get a mouthful of spicy hot sauce?  That strong burning sensation is caused by capsaicin in Capsicum plants that irritates tissues, giving a sensation of "heat," though there is no actual burning going on in a literal sense.

Culinary Uses
Spicy peppers, spices, sauces, and other food products make our every-day dishes powerful and interesting.  Try imagining a world with no capsaicin... Your salsa would be bland, there would be no hot sauce, no chili powder, no Mexian food! (Or at least not as we think of Mexican food today).  Sounds like a pretty dull world, if you ask me.  The thrilling heat of capsaicin allows us to kick up our foods by giving them an eye-watering, mouth-burning sensation of heat that most of us probably couldn't live without.

Other Uses
Capsaicin is also used for a variety of other things, including as a pest repellent, as a pain reliever, to treat dermal issues, and even to help treat cancer.  It is also used in law enforcement for pepper-based sprays.

Capsaicin in Peppers
There are many hot chili peppers (chiles) that contain capsaicin.  If it has any sensation of "heat," there is capsaicin in there.  There are some peppers that have none, like the bell pepper, and some that have a lot, like the habanero.  Each has its uses, and the more capsaicin involved, the more spicy the food will be.
Pepper can be used fresh, dried, ground into spices, or made into sauces and other additions to heat up food.  Capsaicin can also be extracted from peppers for use in various applications, or used in its pure form (though this is generally considered as being far too spicy for use in food, and capsaicin in and of itself has no flavor, which defeats much of the purpose of using chili peppers to spice up foods.

How Do You Measure the Heat?
Since there are many different types of chili peppers, ranging from sweet, to mild, to spicy, there needs to be a way of measuring the heat of these peppers.  While one can taste that something is spicy, and label it as more or less spicy than something else, in 1912, American chemist Wilbur Scoville created a system of measuring how spicy each type of pepper is.  The scale used to measure this is called the Scoville scale.
The Scoville scale measures the perceived "heat" of chili peppers, from having no heat whatsoever (e.g. a bell pepper), to the heat of pure capsaicin. Water and sugar are added to capsaicin oils extracted from the peppers, and taste testers drink the liquid.  This is done until the heat in the mixture is imperceptible.  The amount of times the oil needed to be diluted to make the capsaicin undetectable is the Scoville rating.  For instance, if the capsaicin oil neeed to be diluted a hundred times before it no longer tasted spicy, the rating would be 100.
Since different tasters will have different perceptions of the heat, and since there is a wide variation in the heat of many different types of chili peppers, this is an imprecise science.  However, it gives us the ability to rank peppers in an order of spiciness, and give us a general idea of how hot a pepper will be compared to others.  The following table gives an idea of just a few of these numbers, ranging from a bell pepper (no heat) to pure capsaicin (numbers are not exact, but are meant to be a general reference):

Scoville Ratings

Ingredient Scoville Rating Image

Bell Pepper



0 - 500



New Mexico (Chile Colorado)


Anaheim Pepper








Chipotle/Hot Wax Peppers




Chiles de Arbol


Cayenne/Tabasco Peppers


Thai Peppers


African Devils(Bird's Eye Peppers)


Habanero/Scotch Bonnet


Red Savina Habanero


Bhut Jolokia (Naga Jolokia/Ghost Pepper)


Pure Capsaicin

*Note that some of the images above may depict fresh, dried, smoke, and/or pickled.

Interesting Facts
The hottest pepper ever recorded so far was a Bhut Jolokia pepper rated at 1,041,427 on the Scoville scale. That's about 130 times hotter than the hottest Jalapeño!
Law enforcement-grade pepper spray measures about 5,300,000 Scoville units, about a third of the potency of pure capsaicin!
While capsaicin cannot actually "burn" you, peppers with high amounts of it can cause serious irritation to skin, and especially to areas with mucous membranes, such as the eyes. Be careful when you handle hot peppers! For some, such as habaneros and hotter peppers, gloves are a must.
Many seekers of spicy foods enjoy the adrenaline rush they get from eating foods with hot peppers. This is because the pain receptors in the body cause it to release endorphins due to the pain of the "heat" caused by the capsaicin in peppers. This causes a rush and a feeling of excitement.

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