What makes a hot pepper hot?

by Stephanie Suesan Smith on December 5, 2010

We all know that some peppers are hotter than others.  Bell peppers and banana peppers are called sweet peppers.  Jalapenos and various other peppers are called hot peppers.  The compound that makes peppers hot is capsaicin.  The amount of capsaicin in the pepper governs how hot we perceive it to be.

The heat felt when a pepper is consumed is measured by the Scoville scale.  Bell peppers are a zero on the Scoville scale.  Pure capsaicin is 16,000,000 or more.  It is so hot and burns so bad it is used in the pepper spray police spray in the face of criminals to subdue them.

If you like the taste of hot peppers, then you know that the jalapeno, at 2,500-5,000 Scoville units, is only the beginning.  Thai peppers are very hot, at 100,000-350,000 units, as are Scotch bonnet peppers.  Habanero peppers used to be considered the hottest pepper in the world, at 200,000-300,000 Scoville units.  Recently, however, a pepper was found in India that is now called the Naga Jolakia. This pepper measures1,359,000 Scoville units.

You will notice that all of these measurements give a wide range of heat level.  That is because the growing conditions can have a major effect on the capsaicin level of the pepper.  Drought concentrates the levels so the peppers are hotter.  Very wet conditions tend to dilute the capsaicin levels.  This effect is not precise enough to tell you how much to water a given pepper to obtain a given heat level.  It does exist, however, so be aware of the water the plant is getting and the probable effect on the heat level.

When you grow hot peppers and sweet peppers, it is best not to plant them right next to each other.  They can cross pollinate and the sweet peppers will become hot.  Put them at opposite corners of the garden, like children who do not get along, and everyone will be much happier.  Also, be sure to either wear gloves to pick the hot peppers or wash your hands with soap afterwards, as the capsaicin will rub off onto your skin and when you rub your eyes, you will be sorry.  It will also rub off on other vegetables, so do not pick a handful of this and a handful of that and a pepper.

Good luck with your peppers and feel free to ask any questions you have.

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