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Chili peppers have been a part of the human diet in the Americas since at least 7500 BC. There is archaeological evidence at sites located in southwestern Ecuador that chili peppers were domesticated more than 6000 years ago,and were one of the first self-pollinating crops cultivated in Central and South America

Christopher Columbus was one of the first Europeans to encounter them (in the Caribbean), and called them “peppers” because they, like black and white pepper of the Piper genus known in Europe, have a spicy hot taste unlike other foodstuffs. Upon their introduction into Europe, chilis were grown as botanical curiosities in the gardens of Spanish and Portuguese monasteries. But the monks experimented with the chili culinary potential and discovered that their pungency offered a substitute for black peppercorns, which at the time were so costly that they were used as legal currency in some countries.

The Scoville Scale

The most common way to evaluate chile pungency is a simple taste test. This method, although quick and cost-effective, may leave the tester in some pain: one would be happy to “let Mikey eat it.” There are two other ways of testing pungency as well, the Scoville organoleptic test and high performance liquid chromatography.

  • Mild Heat: 0 to 5,000 SHUs
  • Medium Heat: 5,000 to 20,000 SHUs
  • Hot Heat: 20,000  to 70,000 SHUs
  • Extreme Heat: 70,000 to 30,000 SHUs*

*In recent years, new varieties have been discovered that far exceed 30,000 SHUs. The world’s hottest chile, the bhut jolokia from India, has been measured at 1 million SHUs.