Since You Asked: Peppers and the Scoville scale

I grow a few varieties of peppers, from mild to somewhat hot. I know a substance called capsaicin gives peppers their burn, but is there a way to quantify the amount found in different types of peppers? It seems like one person's impression of a "hot" pepper is another person's idea of "mild."

— Diane S., Medford

There is, in fact, a numerical table categorizing the heat in peppers. It ranges from 0 to off the charts.

The system gets its name from American chemist Wilbur Scoville, who in 1912 diluted liquefied pepper juice or pure ground chili with sugar and then devised a formula based on the drops needed to cool peppers' heat to the point it no longer burned a taster's mouth. Nowadays, liquid chromatography measures Scoville units of capsaicin.

The system's upper limit is 15 or 16 million Scoville units, which denotes pure capsaicin. Packing one-tenth of that firepower is the hybrid Bangladeshi pepper — the Dorset naga — believed to be the world's hottest pepper. Developed in England, the pepper measures 1.6 million Scoville units.

It should come as no surprise that Americans on average eat more bell peppers — about 10 pounds annually — than any other type. The various shades of bell peppers all register 0 on the Scoville scale, along with banana peppers.

Here's a pepper primer for other types from hottest to mildest:

  • Habanero — 150,000 to 575,000 units
  • Scotch bonnet — 150,000 to 325,000 units
  • Cayenne — 30,000 to 50,000 units
  • Serrano — 8,000 to 22,000 units
  • Jalapeno — 2,500 to 8,000 units
  • Anaheim — 500 to 2,500 units
  • Poblano — 1,000 to 2,000 units
  • Pepperoncini — 100 to 500 units.

Send questions to "Since You Asked, A la carte" Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; e-mail to

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