Chilli Power: Feeling the Heat

In January, Amaedonou Kankue from Togo entered the Guinness World Records by eating ten bhut jolokia chillies — also know as ‘ghost chillies’ — in 30.7 seconds. Three years prior, Jason McNabb of the USA also entered the record books by eating 66 grams of the same fiery fruit in two minutes. The chilli is around 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce.


The chilli, a hybrid of the capsicum chineses and the capsicum frutescens, is typically grown in India. “It’s so hot you can’t even imagine,” Digonta Saikia, a farmer from India’s Assam region tells NBC. “When you eat it, it’s like dying.”


For generations, populations in the northeast of India have been using the spice not only in food, but to cure all manner of ills and to even cool off in the summer heat (via sweating). Such is the chilli’s ferocity that in 2010 the Indian government announced plans to weaponise it. “This is definitely going to be an effective non-toxic weapon,” RB Srivastava of the Defence Research and Development Organisation told the Associated Press, “because its pungent smell can choke terrorists and force them out of their hideouts.”


But the bhut jolokia isn’t even the world’s spiciest chilli. That title belongs to the brilliantly named Carolina reaper which can be an astonishing hundreds of times hotter than a jalapeño. Somebody call the fire brigade.




But how exactly is the heat of a chilli measured?


Multi-award-winning American pharmacist Wilbur Lincoln Scoville long held a fascination with all things hot. In 1895 he published The Art of Compounding, which makes one of the earliest references to milk as a powerful nullifier of chilli heat, but it would be Scoville’s 1912 eponymous scale which would secure his place in the history books.


Capsaicin, an active chemical component of fruits born from capsicum plants, is an irritant for mammals, causing a burning sensation to any area it touches — notably sensitive spots such as the mouth, nose and eyes. The Scoville Scale measures its intensity using heat units known as SHU.


Originally the scale was not infallible as it still relied on human taste buds. Peppers were used to make alcohol-based extracts which were diluted further and further until the drinkers could no longer taste the ‘heat’. Then the degree of dilution was converted into the SHU. To put that into context, Tabasco typically has in the region of 5,000 SHU which means 5,000 cups of water would be needed to dilute one cup of Tabasco to a neutral taste (though, cup sized measurements were obviously not used in practice).


“It’s easy to get what’s called taster’s fatigue,” Dr Paul Bosland, chilli book author and professor of horticulture at New Mexico State University tells Smithsonian. “Pretty soon your receptors are worn out or overused, and you can’t taste any more. So over the years, we’ve devised a system where we used what’s called high performance liquid chromatography.”


This means scientists are now able to arrive at an SHU reading in a lab — by measuring how many parts per million of the hot stuff is present in any chilli – with no need to torment any human tongues. Though, it would appear there are many that do enjoy it and it’s popularity is on the rise. Bosland even compares chilli connoisseurs to those of wine. “When you first drink wine, all you notice is the alcohol,” he says. But then people learn to differentiate between grapes and even regions. “That’s how it is with chilli peppers too. At first all you taste is the heat, but soon you’re able to tell which heat sensations you like best.”


Fire Your Way To Health

  • Chillies are high in antioxidants, carotenoids for insulin regulation, and vitamins A and C.
  • Studies have found chillies may reduce cardiovascular disease, boost metabolism and reduce cholesterol levels in the blood.
  • A massive study by the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences — published in the British Medical Journal — found eating spicy food at least twice a week reduces the risk of early death.
  • Historically, chillies have proved popular in warmer climes as they repel microbes, and were therefore of great aid to health in the days before medicine and refrigeration.
  • A British laboratory study found that capsaicin killed lung and pancreatic cancer cells without harming the surrounding healthy ones. Some scientists believe chilli consumption may explain lower rates of certain cancers in India and Mexico than in the West.
  • But don’t go overboard. In Mexico, another study found consumption of jalapeños to be linked with a slight increase in instances of stomach cancer. However, victims had consumed between nine and 25 of those peppers per day.


Fiery Fast Facts

  • It’s a myth that chilli peppers can damage the tastebuds, the furnace from even the hottest fruits wears off after a few days.
  • The plant is highly versatile, capable of mutating quickly. Therefore, farmers can easily develop new strains so the title of the world’s hottest chilli has changed hands a number of times in recent years.
  • Mexico is home to more than 140 different kinds of chilli.
  • Ground chillies were once used as form of punishment in Japan, thrown into the faces of criminals.
  • Ancient American civilisations such as the Incas and Aztecs used chillies as currency.
  • Elephants are highly sensitive to chillies’ smell, so farmers in Africa tie the fruits to fences around their crops.
  • Some parts of the chilli are hotter than others, so you’re not imagining it when your taste buds seem to burn more with each bite. The flesh nearest the stem is where most of the magic happens, not, as many believe, in the seeds.


Words : Jamie Christian Desplaces