How Chile Pepper World Records for Pungency Mean Nothing

Every year – sometimes it looks more like every other week – there is a new contestant for the spot of the world’s hottest chile pepper. Hot sauces claim ever-higher pungency, too. And the most popular chile pepper varieties sold at are?

  1. Bhut Jolokia
  2. Trinidad Scorpion
  3. Habanero Red Savina
  4. 7 Pot and
  5. Bhut Jolokia Chocolate
Guatemalan Insanity Pepper
Screengrab from The Simpsons (©Fox), “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuesto Jomer”

All of them pepper varieties that can lay claim to being among “the hottest,” the superhot.

You may have noticed, from my discussion of the “cryptobotany” of chile peppers, that I consider this fascination to be on par with the search for the “Guatemalan Insanity Pepper” that this is something of a mythology getting into, and distorting, the true picture. It’s not just that I have to go against the grain…

One of the bigger problems is that of testing procedure. Not only that you need to get a (rather costly) high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) done to really get capsaicin content – and therefore, pungency – measured. How do you approach the measurement: Just submit a few peppers, and check their values? Or, really go in for a testing series and see that your variety measures up, no matter what?

And there’s a lot of “matter what.”

For one, chile pepper varieties are usually landraces, meaning that there should be quite a large variety even within one type (“variety”) of pepper.

Peppers are also rather promiscuous plants, cross-pollinating pretty wildly. Even seeds from established research/germplasm centers often have not been isolated enough (either before they were added to the collection, or even afterwards) to necessarily breed true – if one can even talk of that, outside of commercial, professional production of peppers.

Enthusiast / specialist pepper seeds sold by small companies are of even more dubious quality – I have seen quite a few instances where the peppers definitely were not of the type it said on the label.

That’s still not all. Chile pepper’s pungency varies greatly with the conditions they – and that can not only be the plants, it can even mean individual pods – grow in. For a more obvious example, check out the earlier post discussing plant growth and productivity at Erich Stekovics’ fields. – Most chileheads have probably encountered this effect before… you grow some habaneros, the weather is not good for them, and they end up tepid rather than pungent.

Add all this together, and the exact numbers that are always given may sound scientific, but they are almost the opposite. After all, it makes a difference whether one test of one pod found a pungency of 1 million SHU (Scoville Heat Units), or whether that is the average; whether the conditions happened to be right to produce high pungency, or the variety is superhot regardless of growing conditions.

Thus, larger samples are, at the very least, needed – which is, for example, what the University of Warwick pointed out about the Naga Viper’s claim to fame… (see here) . To really be scientifically exact, the variance would actually need to be stated, along with the average!

Does it matter?

There is another point of discontent, beyond the matter of methodology and other backgrounds: Is it really of any importance?

Given the attention economy we live in, where so much information struggles to be seen, it tends to be the loudest, most strident messages that have the greatest chance of making it to memory. Of course, that includes a record like that of the hottest chilli.

Charapita, not exactly unknown but not very widely grown, “bird pepper”-type chilli

I’ll freely admit, I’m also fascinated by just how fiendishly hot chile peppers can get; I don’t mind getting into a bit of a machismo-dare (when visiting Stekovics, I usually end up munching on some habanero), and I’d want to grow the superhots, too, since I’d be expected to have them.

Yet, I don’t care much for them. You can get equally as “burnt” from a pea-size chiltepin (or the charapita pictured left) as from an habanero, from a juicy rocoto or an unexpectedly pungent “sweet” pepper that got crossed with a hot variety. 1 million SHU or “only” 500,000 – both are going to be painful.

What I care about is the wrong impression that the focus on superhot peppers gives. After all, there is a whole culinary culture surrounding the different levels of heat and the different flavors that different types of peppers infuse dishes with – and all the attention going to “the hottest” all too easily provides arguments for those thinking, quite wrongly, that chile peppers are only a crazy pastime for some crazy people.

No, there is not just the burning heat of chiles, there is a whole world of flavor, aroma – and, yes, different degrees of “heat.”

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