Getting the chilli heat level right

Different approaches to assessing the spiciness of a product.

24 October 2018
ingredientsmanufacturemeet the expertNPDreformulationseasoning
image credit: Getty Images

Meet the Expert

Who: Josefine Hammerby

What: Sensory Descriptive Projects Manager

Where: Campden BRI


Chilli peppers originated in Central America and have been part of the human diet for almost 10,000 years. After the ‘discovery’ of the Americas in the 15th and 16th century, the use of chillies in food and traditional medicine spread rapidly around the globe, particularly to parts of Asia.

Over 35m tonnes of chilli peppers are produced worldwide each year, made up of five domesticated species, each containing many varieties.

Why are chillies spicy?

Capsaicin, and related compounds known as capsaicinoids, give chilli peppers their heat when they are eaten. The capsaicin in chilli peppers excites pain receptors on the tongue, making chilli taste ‘hot.’

Chillies evolved to contain capsaicinoids as a defence mechanism against destructive microbes, in particular Fusarium semitectum, by discouraging insects that spread the mould from eating chillies. The capsaicinoids also deter hungry mammals, whose stomach acid destroys the chilli seeds.

Why does chilli heat need measuring?

Spices and chillies affect people differently. What could be a barely detectable amount of chilli to one person may bring out a sweat in another.

To allow consumers to make informed choices, many manufacturers display a graphic on a product’s packaging, with a number of chillies to show consumers how spicy it will be. However, it can be difficult to get consistent results across a range of products.

How is spiciness measured?

Scoville ratings are traditionally used to rate the chilli heat of food. This method was developed in 1912 by Wilbur Scoville and is a measurement of the pungency of spice, a function of capsaicin concentration. Jalapeno chilli peppers score around 1,000-10,000 on the scale, whereas Scotch bonnet peppers can score 100,000-350,000!

The original way to assess something’s Scoville rating was the Scoville organoleptic test. This used a panel of five trained testers to detect capsaicinoids (the heat component) in increasingly diluted solutions.

More recently, HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography) has been used to determine the Scoville rating of the heat of whole chilli or chilli powder instrumentally. This has allowed chilli pungency to be recorded more accurately.

However, when complex products – such as ready meals or cooking sauces – are tested in this way, the results may not correlate with the perceived spiciness when the product is consumed. This could mean that manufacturers are inadvertently providing misleading information to consumers.

Approaching chillies with fresh taste buds

A new method has been developed by Campden BRI to give manufacturers and retailers confidence that they are providing consumers with accurate and consistent information about the chilli strength of their products. The calibrated method uses a highly trained panel of taste testers to provide retailers and manufacturers with a consistent way to rate their products as mild, medium, hot or very hot.

Ingredients and even the colour and texture of a product will influence the perception of hotness. The new method takes these factors into account to provide a consistent and reliable heat rating for food products. Samples are evaluated individually in sensory booths under coloured light to mask any differences in the colour of the products.

This assessment has been designed to help rate the heat of complex products, adding a new tool to the existing ones in use to profile whole and powdered chilli fruits.

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