Scoville and Mohs 3/27/23

Science with Richard Bleil

My friend Indrani, who is originally from India, had invited me to supper when I was in graduate school.  She promised me that she won’t make it as hot as it normally is, so I needn’t worry.  Of course, in those days (before my taste buds started to age) I loved hot food.  I mean truly hot food.  She was skeptical, and brought up a very valid point in that most American’s definition of “hot” is actually quite mild.  And she wasn’t wrong.

Commercially available “hot” food in most restaurants are really turned down to placate the American pride of being able to eat “hot” food while still appealing to our typical palate.  My friend was shocked that I could eat her hot food, and even asked for seconds.  But I have had food that was too hot, usually at my own hand.  I had purchased a bottle of the then relatively new “ghost pepper” hot sauce (no longer the hottest pepper on the scale), and poured several dashes into my own chili rather than the one to two drops recommended.  Like a typical American, I was so confident in my ability to eat hot food that I was, well, reckless. 

Today I ordered hot chicken from a new local restaurant.  It was a five point scale, running from mild through inferno with “hot” being right in the middle of the scale.  Having not had the chicken previously, I thought I played it safe by choosing “hot”, but it was quite a shock when it arrived.  This “hot” was far hotter than most restaurants will serve, or if they do, it’s usually the challenge level hot.  I cannot imagine what their extra hot would be, let alone inferno. 

I ate it, although without much pleasure as my taste for hot food as cooled as I mentioned above.  I’m older now and wise enough to know that pride has nothing to do with food enjoyment.  On my social media page I suggested that perhaps restaurants should post Scoville ratings for their hot food.  While most of us are not familiar with the Scoville scale, it is at least an attempt to quantify hotness, and in time we would begin to recognize where on the scale our individual tastes lie.

In an article I read today the question was posted of what science truly is.  In the article, it was suggested that one of the traits of true science is that it is quantifiable and reproducible.  So one mole of carbon is 12 grams, a quantity that can be reproduced anywhere in the world (or universe for that matter) with the proper equipment.  Two scales that I’ve always felt a certain degree of flexibility in, however, is the Mohs scale of hardness and the Scoville scale of hotness.  Both are an attempt at quantifiable scales, but I’ve always felt they’re just not there yet.

The Scoville scale is actually chemically based.  There are a few chemicals that contribute to “hotness” in food, primarily Capsaicin, but also Piperine (found in black pepper) and Isothiocyanate (found in mustard and radishes).  One way to make the Scoville scale absolutely quantifiable is determination of concentration of chemicals such as Capsaicin in the food (easily done in a lab but not a restaurant).  However, it becomes confusing when we include chemicals like Piperine.  For the most part, it’s my understanding that levels of “hotness” are determined by taste testing, but this is, of course, subject of to the palate of the tester.  Pure Capsaicin (it is just a chemical, so yes, it is available in its pure form) is 16,000,000 on the Scoville scale.  The Carolina pepper is 2,200,000 units, more than twice that of the ghost pepper at 1,000,000.  Habanero is around 500,000, the Thai chili pepper is 100,000, Cayenne and Tabasco are 50,000.  The humble Jalapeno, considered to be excessively hot when I was a child, comes in at a mere 2,500. 

Mohs scale is a strange one.  It’s a scale of hardness of minerals.  The concept is quite simple.  If one material (say a diamond) can scratch another (like glass), then it is harder.  I’m not sure that there is a truly scientific method behind the Mohs scale.  For example, I do not know if pressure testing, which can be quantifiable, was used to set the scale, but even at that you would have problems.  If a mineral has a defect, it would throw off the pressure test.  Although recently it has been suggested that a new mineral made from gunpowder is harder, the hardest currently accepted mineral is, of course, diamond with has a hardness of 10 on the Mohs scale.  A masonry drill bit is at 9.5, a knife is around 5.5 and a copper penny is 3.5.  Your fingernail comes in at about 2.5, and talc is at 0. 


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