What makes a Super Hot Pepper?

Happy thursday everybody, it’s time I explained some terminology to you.

It’s a common thing in the chilli world to refer to some peppers and pepper products as “super hot” but what does that actually mean?

ghost
Ghost Pepper from ukchilliseeds.co.uk

The most common definition is that, like the ghost pepper above, any chilli promising a peak heat above the one million scoville threshold is super hot, while any peaking below it is not. With products being defined solely by the chillies they contain.

There’s a problem there, though.

The “ghost pepper” is in fact one of several names for the indian chilli more properly known as the bhut jolokia. A chilli that, when picked in its native region of assam, is often referred to by the name of the tribe that first grew it, the nagas.

Only some of the earliest nagas to make it to the west weren’t ghost peppers at all but rather a closely related chilli now known as the “naga morich”, eventually bred to create the dorset naga.

dorset-naga-chilli-pepper
Dorset Naga from Chilli Fundamentals

What’s the problem here? Well, its heat rating varies a bit by source but some say that the dorset naga doesn’t quite reach the million mark. It was, after all, bred for ease of growing as much as for its heat.

So, if it is true that this chilli only reaches around nine-hundred and fifty thousand*, is it still worthy of the “super hot” name?

Most chilli lovers would say so. The heat difference between it and the bhut jolokia is pretty negligible and they are quite closely related.

But there’s more. The bhut itself doesn’t just come in one colour. Growers have bred out rare recessive traits in the plant’s gene pool to produce peach, yellow, “mustard”, “chocolate”, “caramel” and purple strains.

Because these are bred for colour, not for heat, a lot of the classic ghost pepper burn is often lost in the process, with the caramel variety peaking at a mere eight-hundred and eighty thousand scoville units.

Still incredibly potent, of course, but noticeably weaker than their red sisters. Still apparently hot enough to call a super.

But what about the weakest variety of them all, the purple strain?

Honestly, I don’t know how hot that one is. I’ve heard it rated at a surprisingly weak half million but cannot find a reliable source. Most places simply list all ghosts the same as the red one, which is blatantly untrue.

If it is only five-hundred thousand*, though, we run into some interesting territory. The red savina strain of habanero was the hottest chilli before the bhut jolokia broke the million mark and it peaked at a respectable five-hundred and eighty thousand scoville heat units.

So this red savina habanero, while crazily hot, is a non-super that’s hotter than a super? Apparently so.

Fortunately, last february, New Mexico State University gave us the answer:

There is, in fact, a biological difference between a really hot habanero and an oddly mild ghost pepper.

You see, the actual pepper of a chilli is really quite mild. Nearly all the heat is in the pith or placenta, that pale membrane that attaches the seeds to the fruit.

So, with a limited amount of placenta to produce its oils in and a whole pepper reducing its heat by weight, there’s only so high a normal chilli can rate. To be as hot as the ghost pepper, something had to change and, in this image here, you can see exactly what:

capsaicinoid_vesicles_2
Trinidad Moruga Scorpion with flourescent placenta, picture courtesy of New Mexico State University

Here we see the inside of a moruga scorpion chilli, treated to make its placental tissue glow beneath a black light. It is, in fact, completely covered by the stuff.

The bhut jolokia, like every other pepper that peaks above the million and all the controversial superhots it’s related to, has a fine layer of heat-producing placenta over all its walls, alongside the normal bits that hold in the seeds.

So perhaps, when deciding whether to call a chilli “super hot” or not, we shouldn’t be looking at its heat rating but simply its internal composition.

*These heat ratings are not properly confirmed. They are provided solely for the sake of narrative and should not be treated as fact without further research of your own first.

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