Food & Drink

All Fired Up! What Is the Scoville Scale?


When it comes to spicy food, there’s no accounting for tastebuds. Some of us love it when the plate in front of us brings the heat. And, well, some people think mayonnaise has too much of a kick. If you’re one of the latter, this article about the most famous pepper spice scale — the Scoville Scale — probably isn’t for you.

Whether you love or loathe chilies, one fact remains: you don’t truly know the heat of a given dish until after you actually take a bite — at which point it’s a bit too late to change your mind! But if you know about the Scoville Scale, you’ll be able to enjoy just about any menu well before the point of no return.

So, how exactly does this pepper spice scale work?

In this article:

What Is the Scoville Scale?

Tons of red and green peppers piled onto a counter.

The Scoville Scale measures the heat levels of a chili pepper. This pepper spice scale dates back to 1912 when an American pharmacist, Wilber Scoville, was developing a “Heet Liniment” painkilling cream. Mr. Scoville needed a way to measure capsaicin — the active ingredient in his heat-producing lotion.

Capsaicin is the very essence of chili heat. Extracted from the seeds and ribs of the pepper, it fires up your stir-fry and makes your tongue burn. To measure and extract a reliable dose of capsaicin from the pepper, Scoville created a process whereby test subjects taste-tested chili essences. Today, this pepper spice scale is the go-to scale for ranking chilies. That’s some proper culinary staying power.

What Are Scoville Scale Units?

Central to the Wilbur’s pepper spice scale is the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU). 

  • The amount of Scoville Heat Units (SHU) in your chili peppers or hot sauce indicates the amount of capsaicin present. 
  • The higher the SHU, the higher the burn — and the higher the ranking on the pepper spice scale.

If you stick to regular chilies from your local stores, delis or restaurants, you’ll probably avoid that fate. But you may need to blow your nose and mop your brow. Why? Well, capsaicin is an irritant, so when it hits the pain receptors of your tongue, your brain thinks you’re being burned. It then tries to cool you down and flush out the substance. 

How Are Scoville Scale Units Measured?

Traditionally, Scoville Heat Units were measured by extracting capsaicin oil from a dried pepper. These were taste-tested for heat levels, and then gradually diluted in sugar water until the capsaicin was no longer discernible. The chili was then assigned a SHU based on the level of dilution required. 

Today, a process called high-performance liquid chromatography (easy for us to say) can determine the exact concentration of capsaicin, eliminating the need for human taste testers. 

That’s probably for the best, since it can be pretty dangerous to test the limitations of the human tongue. 

The Scoville Scale — How Hot Is Hot?

Here’s a rundown of the most formidable Scoville ratings:

  • 16 billion SHU: Resiniferatoxin (the hottest chemical currently known to humanity)
  • 16 million SHU: Pure Capsaicin
  • 5.3 million SHU: Police-grade pepper spray (banned from most chili cook-offs) 
  • 2.2 million SHU: Carolina Reaper pepper (currently the hottest chili in the world)
  • 1.3 million SHU: Naga Viper pepper 
  • 1 million SHU: Ghost Pepper 
  • 500,000 SHU: Red Savina pepper 
  • 100,000–350,000 SHU: Habanero pepper; Scotch Bonnet pepper 
  • 6,000–23,000 SHU: Serrano pepper 
  • 2,500–5,000 SHU: Jalapeño pepper 
  • 100–8,000 SHU: Most major-brand hot sauces 
  • 0 SHU: Bell pepper

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Where Are the Hottest Peppers in the World?

Back in November 2013, the Carolina Reaper pepper was declared the “World’s Hottest Chili” by the Guinness Book of World Records. It remains the record holder to this day — an admirable feat in an industry filled with record chasers who are in constant competition to breed hotter and hotter chilies.

None have managed to captivate the world quite like the Reaper. It’s inspired countless videos of people brave (or foolish) enough to try eating one. 

  • One intrepid Bon Appétit writer went so far as to consume three whole peppers in just under 22 seconds, then documented 14 hours of misery in the aftermath.
  • At more than two million Scoville heat units, the Carolina Reaper is hundreds of times hotter than the average jalapeño. 

With such intense heat, it hasn’t exactly been popping up on menus across the globe. But it does occasionally make an appearance, while some of its (only slightly) less spicy brethren have been torturing tongues for years.

Here, we’ve highlighted some of the spiciest chilis available for consumption around the globe — just in case you want to head off on your travels, build your tolerance to Reaper-level, and conquer the pepper spice chart.

1. The Trinidad Scorpion (aka “Butch T”)

Four large round red peppers sitting in a row.

Heat Level: 1.4 million Scoville heat units (280-500 times hotter than a jalapeño)

Country of Origin: Trinidad & Tobago

Fast Fact: The Trinidad Scorpion pepper gets its name from its pointed tip, which is said to resemble a scorpion stinger. It’s an apt name for this small but terrifying pepper.

2. Ghost Pepper (aka Bhut Jolokia)

Red ghost peppers displayed on a counter surface.

Heat Level: 1 million SHU (200-400 times hotter than a jalapeño)

Country of Origin: Bangladesh

Fast Fact: In some parts of India, ghost peppers (which can be many different colors, including red, chocolate brown, purple, and yes, white) are reportedly used in smoke bombs designed to keep wild elephants at bay.

3. The Scotch Bonnet

Red, orange and geen peppers in a pile.

Heat Level: 100,000 SHU (20-40 times hotter than a jalapeño)

Country of Origin: Not Scotland, amazingly. The scotch bonnet is actually found in many Caribbean Islands, as well as in Guyana, the Maldives and West Africa.

Fast Fact: The pepper’s name comes from its resemblance to a traditional tam o’ shanter hat.

FAQs About the Scoville Scale

A large table displaying peppers, spices and garlic for sale at an outdoor market.

Why Do Some People Tolerate Spicy Foods Better Than Others?

Capsaicin activates a receptor found in your mouth and on your tongue called a TRPV1 receptor. The sensitivity of these receptors — and even the amount of them — varies from person to person. When someone says they don’t like spicy food, it’s most likely because they don’t have a mouth that can handle it.

Where Does a Jalapeño Fall on the Scoville Scale?

Jalapeños clock up between 2,500 and 5,000 units on the Scoville Scale, which is actually pretty low. If the jalapeño is enough to get your tongue numb, contrast that with the Caribbean favorite scotch bonnet at 350,000 units. Or worse still, the ghost pepper at one million!

How Is Hot Sauce Measured on the Scoville Scale?

Hot sauce is measured by extracting the chili content and testing it using high-performance liquid chromatography to measure its capsaicin content. From there, you can assign it a Scoville rating. Your average hot sauce can range from a meager 450 SHU up to 5,000 SHU (Tobasco, for example, is 2,500-5,000 SHU). But specialist varieties can get far hotter.

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