When the word taste is mentioned, people often think of sweet, sour, bitter, salty, savoury and spicy. But among these, only the first five are officially “tastes”. Spiciness is technically not a taste; it is rather a type of pain.
Due to the confusion between the words hot (which could mean temperature) and spicy (suggesting there are spice, but not specifying what type), scientists devised a new word called piquance to correctly name the sensation.
Piquance is caused by chemicals such as capsaicin stimulating the densely packed nerve fibres in mucous membranes in the mouth, causing pain. This sensation can be sensed anywhere covered by thin skin or membrane such as the eye. Tear gas and pepper spray exploit this by attacking the eyes, disabling sight, and the respiratory system, crippling breathing by inducing cough reflexes, to nullify the target.
Being a sensation, piquance can be seen as a subjective measure. Is there an objective way of measuring the piquance of a food?
In 1912, an American pharmacist called Wilbur Scoville utilised the fact that piquance is due to capsaicin to create something called the Scoville Scale. This scale’s unit is 1 Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) and is proportionate to the level of capsaicin.
The following is a list of many types of chilli and their SHU:
- Paprika: 0
- Peperoncini: 100-150
- Jalapeño pepper/Tabasco sauce: 2,500-8,000
- Chungyang red pepper: 10,000-23,000
- Habanero chilli: 100,000-350,000
- Red Savina habanero: 350,000-58,0000
- Naga Jolokia: 1,067,286
- Naga Viper: 1,382,118
- Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper: 1,463,700 (currently the world’s hottest pepper)
- Tear gas/pepper spray: 5,300,000
- Pure capsaicin: 16,000,000