Capsaicin and Scoville Scale

Learn about capsaicin and the scoville scale, the science behind the burn, how it’s cultivated and the best ways to cope with the heat once you’ve taken a bite.



Capsaicin is an alkaloid that produces sensations of heat and pain in mammals. It is colorless and odorless, and protects the plant against pests and plant diseases like fungi. There are different alkaloids, which is why there are flavor variations among different species of chili.

Chilis contain capsaicin (can also be spelled with a k), a compound that adds a sensation of heat when eaten. The capsaicin binds to a receptor called TRPV1, which sends on information to the brain that the temperature is at least 109.4°F (43°C), which in turn provides a sensation of heat in the body. At the same time the capsaicin generates a feeling of pain, which varies depending on the amount of capsaicin in the fruit. The chemical makeup makes capsaicin a fat, which is not water soluble, which in turn explains why it is impossible to cool the heat by drinking water.

Chilis are prized by birds, which have no capsaicin receptors. They don’t feel the heat and so can happily nosh on chils and spread the seeds through their excrement—a smart way for the plant to ensure its propagation. Mammals eating chili risk crushing the seeds with their teeth, so it’s to the plant’s advantage that various mammals think chilis taste bad (the chili couldn’t know that humans were going to appreciate capsaicin).

The capsaicin compound separates chilis from all other fruits and vegetables. Of course, there are other raw foods that taste spicy, but not in quite the same way since they lack this active compound. The chili fruit’s heat strength is measured in Scovilles, a measurement created especially for this purpose.

Scorching Cultivation

Ed Currie, aka Smokin’ Ed, has brought out the Carolina Reaper and a line of other spicy varieties through cross-pollination. He cultivates on his farm in South Carolina, where the climate is humid and subtropical, an excellent combination for growing chilis in garden beds. Puckerbutt Pepper Company is located in the small community of Fort Mills. On his farm, Ed works in collaboration with Christopher Phillips, who collects rare chilis, growing 540 different varieties on approximately 222 acres (90 hectares).

The typical aroma of chili is so dense over the fields that it’s noticeable even indoors. In a barn, newly harvested chilis are stored in big black plastic containers while waiting to be made into powder or sauce. We’re talking a lot of pounds of heat! The chili handlers, who wear protective clothing with gloves and breathing masks to be able to stay in the building, must still walk outside for fresh air now and then. That’s how saturated the air is with capsaicin.



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