The year was 1912 and the firm was Parke-Davis. As one of their pharmacists, Wilbur Scoville was asked to determine the pungency levels of ingredients used for medical ointments. He developed the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) and the rest is history.
On January 22, a Google Doodle commemorated Scoville’s 151st birthday.
Where are we going? To why commerce requires standardized weights and measures.
The Red Hot Chili Pepper Scale
Scoville used five tasters and watered down capsaicinoids (the source of pungency in chili peppers) to develop his heat scale. By increasingly diluting the capsaicinoids until three of the tasters no longer detected any heat, he could create a water-capsaicin SHU ratio. The higher the SHU, the hotter the pepper.
The human mouth though is problematic because our capsaicin response varies. Yes, we all have pain receptors that trick our brain into thinking our mouth is heating up when it contacts capsaicin. However those of us with more sensors have a much hotter sensation (my response is so hot that I cannot eat even one pepper). As a result, the process has been mechanized with high-performance liquid chromatography that provides a precise measurement of capsaicinoid levels.
Below you can see that a bell pepper is rather tame while chilis as potent as the Carolina Reaper require an ambulance.
India’s Naga King Chili-Eating Competition
Unlike Nathan’s hot dog contests, the Naga King requires chewing and gives participants only 20 seconds to down as many chilis as possible. One competitor who ate five Bhut Jolokias (please see above scale) was rushed to the hospital while the winner was “crouched on the floor, glassy eyed” after consuming 14 within the 20 second limit.
So yes, we need to know about chili pepper heat for making our ointments, sauces, spices, industrial solvents…and for extreme chili pepper eating competitions.
Our Bottom Line: Standardized Weights and Measures
The tale of the Scoville Scale is really about the basics of commerce. To trade beyond your home town, you need a shared standard for your weights and measures. When you say something weighs a kilogram, or is as long as a yard, or as hot as 500,000 Scoville Heat Units, everyone knows precisely what you mean.
Today in the U.S. the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is the place to go for an inch or a second or any definitive standard for measurement that is used in commerce and research.
Preserved in a vault, this is the standard kilogram: