I recently cooked a dinner with the teenage son of a colleague of mine. We had a great time selecting the ingredients and deciding how to season the vegetables and meat. He was intrigued by the idea of adding paprika, a spice made of ground air dried chili peppers, to most of our dishes. Given that I was not sure how much spiciness or heat he could tolerate, we decided to use a sweet Hungarian paprika as our seasoning. I did, however, send him home with a small can of hot Hungarian paprika to see if he liked that.
I got a text from him a few days later in which he told me that he had enjoyed the hot paprika over spaghetti but that it was really quite hot. Deciding how hot is hot in the chili pepper world can be challenging. As reported in The Wall Street Journal, the most commonly used measurement for the amount of heat in a chili pepper is the Scoville standard. The Scoville standard reports the amount of heat in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). The chemical primarily responsible for the burning sensation or heat caused by the chili peppers is capsaicin. Capsaicin triggers pain receptors on the tongue and in the mouth that is interpreted by the brain as heat. Very mild or sweet Bell peppers measure between 0 and 1,000 SHUs. Poblano (1,000-2,000), Tabasco (30,000-70,000), and Haberno (80,000-150,000) are commonly found peppers with considerably more heat. Pure capsaicin measures 16 million SHUs.
The Scoville standard was first developed in 1912 and used human volunteers. Capsaicin from various chili peppers was diluted until three of five tasters could no longer detect their heat. The greater the number of dilutions required the hotter the pepper and the greater the number on the Scoville scale. The problem was that different people had different numbers of heat receptors on their tongues and eventually, receptors became saturated and individuals could not easily distinguish between dilutions. The number of Scoville Heat Units in peppers is now calculated quite accurately using high-performance liquid chromatography. This has important implications as ground red chili peppers are commonly used to color foods red.
Manufacturers want to carefully control the amount of heat in their products. The other group keenly interested in the scale are the “chiliheads” or individuals who enjoy consuming hot chiles. These individuals are always competing to see who can eat the hottest chili peppers. The current record was set by a dentist who consumed three “Carolina Reaper” peppers measuring 1.56 million SHUs in just under 11 seconds. As for my colleague’s teen son, sweet paprika rarely tops 500 SHUs. Hot Hungarian paprika, however, may be quite similar in heat to cayenne pepper at 30,000 to 50,000 SHUs and an order of magnitude hotter than jalapeños. So, I am happy that we started with the sweet paprika and gently eased into the hotter stuff.