Mr. Scoville and the
Red Hot Peppers

By Earl H. Perkins, Thursday Review Associate Editor

I gave up eating really hot peppers many years ago, but for all you folks out there who live to cry, Ed Currie of South Carolina has evidently grown the world's hottest pepper.

The Carolina Reaper has been judged by the Guinness Book of World Records to be hotter than all others, according to the Associated Press.

The book editors decided to take the word of several brave Winthrop University students who test food as part of their undergraduate classes. Currie and his aptly named Pucker Butt Pepper Company, based in Fort Mill, South Carolina, have been chasing the honor for more than four years.

Chemical compounds known as capsaicinoids are key to studying the science of hot peppers, according to Cliff Calloway, the Winthrop professor whose students tested the peppers.

I haven't tried Ed's peppers. I am afraid to," Calloway said. "I bite into a jalapeno--that's too hot for me."

Pepper heat is measured in Scoville heat units, following a formula created by pharmacist Wilbur Scoville approximately 100 years ago.

At that time, sugar and water were used to dilute an extract made from peppers. Scientists would then taste the solution and dilute it until the heat was no longer detectable. Ratings at that time were technically dependent on a scientist's tongue, which seems slightly unreliable.

Personally, I would have given others the special opportunity of declaring themselves experts, and I would have just taken their opinion at face value. After all, who would really lie about whether a pepper is hot or not? Besides, it may be largely subjective. Trust me, I used to eat lots of hot peppers, and it was pretty easy to determine if someone was eating a really hot one.

Nowadays, scientists use liquid chromatography to detect exact amounts of compounds after separating capsaicinoids from the rest of the peppers. A formula converts the readings into Scoville's scale.

Zero is bland, and a regular jalapeno registers around 5,000 on Scoville's famous scale. But you also have to consider there are usually five pickings of jalapeno's, with the later pickings being much hotter than the early ones.

Leave it to those pointy-headed nerds at New Mexico State University to rain on the hottest pepper parade. Plant genetics and where it was grown are key factors in determining heat, so you just cannot answer the question of which pepper is truly the world's hottest, according to Paul Bosland, director of NMSU's Chile Pepper Institute.

"You have to think of chili heat like salt," Bosland said. " A little bit improves the flavor, but a lot ruins it."

Currie's Carolina Reapers tipped the heat unit scale at 1,569,300, with one pepper topping 2.2 million. Pepper spray stands at about 2 million Scoville units.

As for me, there is only one way to enjoy a really scorching hot pepper. You cut it up into really small pieces, and then mix it with a large batch of rice or beans. This dilutes the heat and flavors a bland starch. Bon appetite.