What Are Scoville Heat Units?

Have you ever eaten a hot sauce so hot, so spicy, that it filled your mouth with hot, steaming lava and made your eyes water like a broken sprinkler?

Have you ever tasted a sauce that made you feel like the inside of your mouth was transforming into a four-alarm fire that made you sprint for the nearest gallon of milk? If you have – and we all have at some point – you’ve encountered real, mouth-smokin’ heat in the form of Scoville heat units (SHU).

Scoville heat units are the measurement units for determining just how hot and spicy a food is. In other words, we measure the intensity of a food – like a hot sauce – in Scoville units. It’s like the Richter scale for earthquakes; the bigger the number, the more intense the experience.

And some of these experiences are like massive 9.0 earthquakes in your mouth.

Scoville Heat Units, Your Mouth, and You

SHUs are found on a scale called the Scoville scale. It was created by an enterprising American pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville way back in 1912.

Wilbur wanted to measure just how hot certain chili peppers were. Our guess is that back then, there were some pretty toasty peppers being passed around that were great at making people pass out at parties. Wilbur decided to create a test called the Scoville Organoleptic Test to measure the concentration of capsaicin – a diabolical substance found in spicy foods that puts the “please help me” in “heat”.M

Generally speaking, the more concentrated the capsaicin, the hotter a food will be. Of course, some of this is subjective; the test involves giving an extract of the substance to five trained tasters and measuring their responses.

But still, it’s a good way to determine just how much a pepper will melt your mouth from the inside out.

Understanding the Scoville Scale (I.e. What Not to Eat)

The results are then plotted on the Scoville scale in terms of SHUs. The more SHUs in a substance, the hotter it is.

Starting at the bottom of the scale, at a big fat zero, is our neighborhood-friendly bell pepper. Just above the bell pepper are foods like the banana pepper, paprika, and pepperoncini. These are the 100-900 range.

The next category, 1,000 to 4,000 SHUs, includes everyone’s favorite “hot” pepper, the jalapeño pepper. Right above the jalapeño (which, while spicy, isn’t nearly as tough as some of the other peppers above it), is everyone’s favorite hot sauce, Tabasco sauce, which clocks in at a maximum of 5,000 SHUs.

Now, some of you might think that Tabasco sauce is plenty hot for you. If that’s the case, stop reading right now – because there are plenty of sauces that put Tabasco to shame when it comes to mouth-scorching goodness.

At 10,000 Scoville units, we find the delightful chipotle smoke-dried jalapeño. Above that, at 50,000 to 65,000, we find a lovely Chile de árbol, which is ten times as spicy and intense as Tabasco. If you’ve eaten spicy Chinese or Mexican food, you’ve probably eaten one of these (in small form). They’re pretty spicy – but it gets worse. Much worse.

The Scoville scale doesn’t top out at 100,000, where you’lll find the malagueta pepper or piri piri. It keeps going, well past habaneros (100,000 to 350,000 SHUs) and the Red Savina habanero (350,000 to 580,000 SHUs) to peppers that rank in the millions.

In fact, you can go to YouTube right now and find videos of people eating one of the world’s hottest peppers, the bhut jokokia, or ghost pepper. This ferocious beast clocks in at over one million SHUs and causes intense pain when eaten raw and whole. That should make you sweat just reading it.

As intense as the ghost pepper is, though, it’s not the top dog. That honor belongs to the Carolina Reaper, bred in South Carolina. How hot is the Carolina Reaper? Guiness World Records certified the Reaper as the world’s hottest pepper – with a Scoville rating of over 2,200,000 SHUs.

We’d do the math as to how many times hotter that is than Tabasco sauce, but we’re pretty sure it’d make us pass out.

Remember: Scoville Units Are Your Friend

The next time you eat spicy foods, especially those made from sauces, pay attention to the Scoville scale. Check the Scoville rating for the food, and make sure you can handle it. Otherwise, call the fire department before you eat, because you’ll need them.