Decmber 2013/January 2014 Teacher's Guide for Hot Peppers: Muy Caliente! Table of Contents

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Decmber 2013/January 2014 Teacher's Guide for
Hot Peppers: Muy Caliente!
Table of Contents

About the Guide 2

Student Questions 3

Answers to Student Questions 4

Anticipation Guide 6

Reading Strategies 7

Background Information 9

Connections to Chemistry Concepts 20

Possible Student Misconceptions 21

Anticipating Student Questions 21

In-class Activities 21

Out-of-class Activities and Projects 22

References 23

Web Sites for Additional Information 23

About the Guide

Teacher’s Guide editors William Bleam, Donald McKinney, Ronald Tempest, and Erica K. Jacobsen created the Teacher’s Guide article material. E-mail:

Susan Cooper prepared the anticipation and reading guides.
Patrice Pages, ChemMatters editor, coordinated production and prepared the Microsoft Word and PDF versions of the Teacher’s Guide. E-mail:
Articles from past issues of ChemMatters can be accessed from a CD that is available from the American Chemical Society for $30. The CD contains all ChemMatters issues from February 1983 to April 2008.
The ChemMatters CD includes an Index that covers all issues from February 1983 to April 2008.
The ChemMatters CD can be purchased by calling 1-800-227-5558.
Purchase information can be found online at

Student Questions

    1. Describe some of the effects of eating a Moruga Scorpion, one of the hottest chili peppers in the world.

    2. What compound causes the “hot” taste we experience when eating chili peppers?

    3. How is the hotness of a chili pepper measured?

    4. Discuss why capsaicin’s structure makes water a poor choice to cool the heat of a chili pepper in your mouth.

    5. What are some preferred foods/drinks to cool the heat of a chili pepper in your mouth? Why?

    6. How do chili peppers generate the feeling of heat without actually increasing the temperature of your tongue, mouth, and throat?

    7. Describe what happens when a capsaicin molecule bonds to a pain receptor.

    8. What happens in the body when capsaicin is applied to skin as a pain reliever?

Answers to Student Questions

      1. Describe some of the effects of eating a Moruga Scorpion, one of the hottest chili peppers in the world.

Some of the effects of eating one of the hottest chili peppers in the world are:

  • Pain

  • Mouth, tongue, and throat feel like they are on fire

  • Eyes water

  • Ears ring

  • Lips go numb

  • Face turns red

  • Sweat profusely

      1. What compound causes the “hot” taste we experience when eating chili peppers?

The compound that causes the “hot” taste is capsaicin, a colorless, odorless oil-like compound.

      1. How is the hotness of a chili pepper measured?

The hotness of a chili pepper is measured by the Scoville heat scale, which is a series of “heat units” that range from 0 (bell pepper) to 16 million (pure capsaicin), depending on the pepper’s capsaicin content.

      1. Discuss why capsaicin’s structure makes water a poor choice to cool the heat of a chili pepper in your mouth.

Capsaicin’s structure has a long hydrocarbon tail. Capsaicin ends up being nonpolar overall because of its molecular structure, especially the tail. Water is an example of a polar molecule. When you drink water after eating a chili pepper (nonpolar), the water (polar) just moves more of it around your mouth, making the pain worse.

      1. What are some preferred foods/drinks to cool the heat of a chili pepper in your mouth? Why?

Some preferred foods/drinks are milk, ice cream, and bread. Milk and ice cream contain nonpolar molecules called casein. Casein molecules attract capsaicin molecules. They surround the capsaicin molecules and wash them away. Bread or other starchy foods made of nonpolar molecules can also help.

      1. How do chili peppers generate the feeling of heat without actually increasing the temperature of your tongue, mouth, and throat?

Chili peppers generate the feeling of heat by triggering pain receptors in your tongue, mouth, and throat that send a signal to the brain, which is interpreted as heat. Capsaicin also stimulates receptors that perceive heat, known as thermoreceptors.

      1. Describe what happens when a capsaicin molecule bonds to a pain receptor.

When a capsaicin molecule bonds to a pain receptor, calcium ions flood in. This triggers the release of neurotransmitters (chemicals that are transmitted from one neuron to the next) that send a message to the brain. The brain interprets this message as pain.

      1. What happens in the body when capsaicin is applied to skin as a pain reliever?

When capsaicin is applied to skin, a steady stream of neurotransmitters is sent to the brain, stimulating pain signals in the body. Once these neurotransmitters are depleted, you no longer experience pain. You are exchanging short-lived intense pain for constant, low-level pain that your body gets used to.

Anticipation Guide

Anticipation guides help engage students by activating prior knowledge and stimulating student interest before reading. If class time permits, discuss students’ responses to each statement before reading each article. As they read, students should look for evidence supporting or refuting their initial responses.

Directions: Before reading, in the first column, write “A” or “D,” indicating your agreement or disagreement with each statement. As you read, compare your opinions with information from the article. In the space under each statement, cite information from the article that supports or refutes your original ideas.




  1. The chemical compound responsible for the “heat” found in the membrane of hot peppers is also found in smaller amounts in other spices.

  1. The Scoville heat index for peppers is based on what volunteer taste testers reported.

  1. If you ate a pepper containing 10 mg of capsaicin in 1 kg of pepper, you would have a long-lasting burning sensation on your tongue.

  1. If you accidentally eat a pepper that is too hot, water is the best drink to soothe the pain.

  1. Capsaicin is a polar molecule.

  1. Hot peppers actually increase the temperature in your mouth.

  1. Eating hot peppers is popular in warm climates because they make you feel cooler.

  1. Capsaicin is found in creams used to treat pain such as sore muscles.

  1. Chili peppers have very few vitamins.

Reading Strategies

These graphic organizers are provided to help students locate and analyze information from the articles. Student understanding will be enhanced when they explore and evaluate the information themselves, with input from the teacher if students are struggling. Encourage students to use their own words and avoid copying entire sentences from the articles. The use of bullets helps them do this. If you use these reading strategies to evaluate student performance, you may want to develop a grading rubric such as the one below.






Complete; details provided; demonstrates deep understanding.



Complete; few details provided; demonstrates some understanding.



Incomplete; few details provided; some misconceptions evident.



Very incomplete; no details provided; many misconceptions evident.


Not acceptable

So incomplete that no judgment can be made about student understanding

Teaching Strategies:

  1. Links to Common Core State Standards for writing: Ask students to revise one of the articles in this issue to explain the information to a person who has not taken chemistry. Students should provide evidence from the article or other references to support their position.

  1. Vocabulary that is reinforced in this issue:

  • Nanoparticles.

  • Structural formulas. (You may want to have model kits available to help students visualize the structures.)

  1. To help students engage with the text, ask students what questions they still have about the articles. The article about climate change, in particular, may spark questions and even debate among students.

Directions: As you read the article, complete the graphic organizer below describing what you learned about hot peppers.


Your friends want to enjoy some really hot, spicy food. Write three new things you learned about hot peppers from reading this article that you would like to share with your friends.




Share two things you learned about chemistry from the reading the article.



Did this article change your views about eating hot spicy food? Explain in one sentence.


Describe a personal experience about eating hot spicy food that connects to something you read in the article—something that your personal experience validates.

Background Information

(teacher information)
More on chili peppers
The picture the Rohrig article paints of chili peppers (also written as “chile peppers,” “chilli peppers,” “chilies,” and other variations) tends toward the painful side. His initial description of the effects of eating a Moruga Scorpion pepper might lead one to wonder—why would anyone willingly subject themselves to such an experience? There are some benefits associated with chili peppers. The article states that they’re an excellent source of vitamins C, A, and E, as well as folic acid and potassium. Chili peppers and the chemical compounds they contain may be able to help with weight loss and can also help to mask the pain of arthritis, shingles, and sore muscles. Aztec Indians used them as a treatment for toothache; the Mayans used them for asthma, coughs, and sore throats. ( Ed Currie, developer of the Carolina Reaper, another chili pepper contending for the “world’s hottest” crown, eats chili peppers daily in the belief that they help keep cancer from returning to his body. ( He even donates a large portion of his annual chili pepper crop to cancer researchers, who are investigating the ability of capsaicin (the main compound that gives chili peppers their “hotness”) to kill cancer cells. The nastiness of the chili peppers themselves can also be turned into a useful tool. “The Mayans burned chiles to create a stinging smoke screen, and threw gourds filled with pepper extract in battle. Nowadays, capsaicin is the active ingredient in pepper sprays, used to ward off attacking muggers, dogs, and bears.” (
Eating peppers as a part of food dishes is widespread around the world. The article “An Overview about Versatile Molecule Capsaicin” summarizes: “Chili peppers are mainly consumed as food additives in many regions of the globe because of their unique pungency, aroma, and color. Indeed, a quarter of the world’s population consumes hot pepper in some form daily.” (Arora, R.; Gill, N.S.; Chauhan, G.; Rana, A.C. An Overview about Versatile Molecule Capsaicin. Int. J. Pharmaceut. Sci. Drug Res. 2011, 3 (4), p 280; see In addition to this consumption of peppers that have “ordinary” levels of heat, many people are part of a trend of eating hotter and hotter peppers. The Moruga Scorpion and others like it are sometimes termed “superhots.” Many videos online document people’s experiences of eating various peppers, sometimes to extreme results, such as vomiting on camera. Some vendors even sell capsaicin extract, so users can add it directly to any food or hot sauce they don’t deem hot enough. Part of the interest in eating the peppers may be the appeal of the experience to thrill-seekers. The body responds to the pain and stress of eating a pepper with an endorphin rush, giving one a mix of pain with the pleasure. The author of The New York Times article “A Perk of Our Evolution: Pleasure in Pain of Chilies” quotes Dr. Paul Rozin, who has a Ph.D. in both biology and psychology:
…he has evidence for what he calls benign masochism. For example, he tested chili eaters by gradually increasing the pain, or, as the pros call it, the pungency, of the food, right up to the point at which the subjects said they just could not go further. When asked after the test what level of heat they liked the best, they chose the highest level they could stand, “just below the level of unbearable pain.” …
No one knows for sure why humans would find pleasure in pain, but Dr. Rozin suggests that there’s a thrill, similar to the fun of riding a roller coaster. “Humans and only humans get to enjoy events that are innately negative, that produce emotions or feelings that we are programmed to avoid when we come to realize that they are actually not threats,” he said. “Mind over body. My body thinks I’m in trouble, but I know I’m not.”
(Gorman, J. A Perk of Our Evolution: Pleasure in Pain of Chilies. The New York Times, Sep. 20, 2010; see
The past ChemMatters article “Pepper Power” discusses the origin of chili peppers:
Capsaicin is found in plants of the genus Capsicum—commonly known as chili peppers—and is responsible for their burning hot taste. Hot peppers originated in South America, where they have been cultivated since 5500 B.C., and were introduced to Europe and Asia after discovery by Columbus. Though the peppers were not well received by Europeans, they quickly became popular in India and China.
(Williams, C. Pepper Power. ChemMatters 1995, 13 (2), p 11)
The “pepper” in the name comes from Columbus’s mistaken idea that the capsaicin-containing peppers he found were related to black pepper plants, which get their spiciness from the compound piperine rather than capsaicin and its related compounds.
What we consider the “hotness” or heat of a chili pepper is referred to as pungency. The majority of the pungency in a chili pepper comes from capsaicin, but there are other related compounds that also contribute. This group of compounds is known as the capsaicinoids. There are over 22 known capsaicinoids. ( Besides capsaicin, some of the compounds within this group are 6,7-dihydrocapsaicin, nordihydrocapsaicin, homocapsaicin, and homodihydrocapsaicin. Capsaicin and dihydrocapsaicin, between the two of them, typically contribute ~80–90% of the pungency of chili peppers. In the figure below, one can see that each has a long hydrocarbon tail, with small variations within the tail. These small variations can have an impact on what we experience when eating a pepper: “Several capsaicin-like compounds found in chiles have slight structural variations in the hydrocarbon tail, which changes their ability to bind to the receptors and their ability to penetrate layers of receptors on the tongue, mouth, and throat. That may explain why some chiles burn in the mouth, while others burn deep in the throat.” ( Chili pepper connoisseurs have different terms to describe the varying types of pungency that different peppers can produce: sharp, piercing, stinging, biting, burning, or penetrating. (

The blog “Food & Think” describes a further cataloging of how one experiences the pungency of a pepper, discussing the ideas of Dr. Paul Bosland, a professor of horticulture and the author of several books on chili peppers:
Bosland and his colleagues have broken the heat profile of chile peppers into five distinctly different characteristics. 1) how hot it is, 2) how fast the heat comes on, 3) whether it linger or dissipates quickly, 4) where you sense the heat – on the tip of tongue, at the back of throat, etc., and 5) whether the heat registers as “flat” or “sharp.”
This last characteristic is fascinating for what it says about cultural chile pepper preferences (say that five times fast). Apparently those raised in Asian cultures — where chile heat has been considered one of the six core tastes for thousands of years — prefer sharp heat that feels like pinpricks but dissipates quickly. Most Americans, on the other hand, like a flat, sustained heat that feels almost like it’s been painted on with a brush.
So, a chili pepper’s heat comes from capsaicin and related compounds, but how does a pepper’s particular combination come about in the first place?
The heat level in chile peppers is the result of two factors: the plant’s genetics and the interaction of the plant with the environment. The genetic control of heat allows plant breeders to produce a chile pepper plant with a certain relative heat level. For example, the cultivar ‘NuMex Joe E. Parker’ was genetically selected to produce fruit of “medium” heat. However, environmental factors such as temperature and water influence the heat level. A mild chile pepper cultivar bred for low levels of heat will become hotter when exposed to any type of stress in the field. Conversely, a relatively hot cultivar given optimal environmental conditions will become only moderately hot. A chile pepper plant that genetically produces low-heat fruit will not produce hot chile peppers even when grown in a stressed environment. To produce chile peppers of a predictable heat, both cultivar selection and optimum stress-free growing conditions are important.
Within the pepper itself, the Rohrig article states that capsaicin is primarily found in the membrane that holds the seeds. Further information about the specific locations is available in the article “An Overview about Versatile Molecule Capsaicin”:
Recent studies indicate that capsaicin is mostly located in vesicles or vacuole like sub-cellular organelles of epidermal cells of placenta in the pod. The highest concentrations of capsaicin are found in the ovary and in the lower flesh (tip) and the lowest content of capsaicin can be found in the seeds. The gland on the placenta of the fruit produces capsaicinoids. The seeds are not the source of pungency but they occasionally absorb capsaicin because they are in close proximity to the placenta. No other plant part produces capsaicinoids. The majority, about 89%, of the capsaicin is associated with the placental partition of the fruit and nearly 5–6% in the pericarp and the seed. Composition of capsaicin may vary among different varieties of the same species and with fruit of a single variety. The pungency is influenced with the weather conditions such as heat wave and it increases with the growth of the maturity of the fruit.
(Arora, R.; Gill, N.S.; Chauhan, G.; Rana, A.C. An Overview about Versatile Molecule Capsaicin. Int. J. Pharmaceut. Sci. Drug Res. 2011, 3 (4), pp 280–281; see

(from Williams, C. Pepper Power. ChemMatters 1995, 13 (2), p 10)
More on capsaicin
The division of this “More on capsaicin” section from the “More on chili peppers” section above and the “More on the Scoville heat scale” section below is somewhat arbitrary. For example, one cannot even discuss the peppers’ genus name of Capsicum without at least mentioning the related name capsaicin. The Scoville heat scale compares items against the pungency of pure capsaicin. All three sections have a common thread that runs through them—the chemical compound that typically provides the majority of the pungency of a chili pepper.
Methods to more objectively detect and determine the amount of capsaicin present in a sample have come a long way since the development of the Scoville Organoleptic Test, which depends on human taste testers. The journal article “Chemical and Pharmacological Aspects of Capsaicin” states: “Growing interest in capsaicin has led to its characterization with methods such as spectrophotometry UV-VIS and chromatography. These have been modified over time to develop more sensitive, faster capsaicin characterization techniques.” (de Lourdes Reyes-Escogido, M.; Gonzalez-Mondragon, E.G.; Vazquez-Tzompantzi, E. Chemical and Pharmacological Aspects of Capsaicin. Molecules 2011, 16 (2), p 1259; see The article goes on to discuss an extensive listing of additional techniques, including thin-layer chromatography, multi-band thin-layer chromatography, high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS), liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS-MS), liquid chromatography quadrupole ion trap mass spectrometry (LC-ESI/MS/MS), gas chromatography (GC), and solid phase microextraction-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry.

HPLC is the method mentioned quite often in connection with capsaicin. A Royal Society of Chemistry student handout includes an explanation of the technique along with a diagram of the HPLC apparatus:

This technique is essentially about separating mixtures. It works on the same principle as paper chromatography in that it involves a solvent moving through a solid and carrying with it the components of a mixture, which travel at different rates. In HPLC, the solid phase is a powder enclosed in a metal tube called a column and the solvent is forced through the column by a high pressure pump, so HPLC is sometimes said to refer to High Pressure Liquid Chromatography. A sample of the mixture to be separated is injected into the solvent just before it enters the column….
The better a component forms intermolecular bonds with the liquid, the faster it moves through the column and the sooner it emerges from the other end. The time a component spends on the column is called the retention time. A particular substance will always have the same retention time provided that the solid phase and the solvent are kept the same so the retention time can be used to identify components of a mixture. (It is possible that two unrelated substances may have the same retention time so we need to have some idea of the likely components of the mixture to use the retention time to identify them.) A detector times when the different components emerge from the column and measures how much there is of each. A computer is then used to plot a graph (called a chromatogram)…. The height of each peak (strictly the area below it) represents the amount of that component present in the mixture while the position on the horizontal axis shows the retention time, which can be used to identify the substance causing the peak.
When using HPLC to measure the hotness of a chilli, the analyst uses the chromatogram to measure the amounts of different capsaicinoids present. The greater the amount of these, the hotter the chili. She or he must also allow for the different hotnesses of the different capsaicinoid compounds—homocapsaicin is only about half as hot as capsaicin, for example. The method must be calibrated by a human taster to convert the measured amounts of capsaicinoid compounds into Scoville units as no

machine can actually measure the sensation of taste.

To carry out the test, a chilli is dried, weighed, ground and a solvent is added in which the capsaicinoid compounds will dissolve. A known volume of this solution is injected onto the HPLC column.

Sample HPLC chromatograms showing capsaicin and dihydrocapsaicin peaks are shown in a short online handout from the instrumentation company Shimadzu. One of the figures is shown below.

The uses of capsaicin are varied and extend well beyond the idea of adding chili peppers to one’s food to add a bit of spice. One use is within the chili pepper itself. Capsaicin may be able to help protect the chili pepper from a fungal infection. The New York Times article “A Perk of Our Evolution: Pleasure in Pain of Chilies” says, “A recent study suggested that capsaicin is an effective defense against a fungus that attacks chili seeds. In fact, experiments have shown that the same species of wild chili plant produces a lot of capsaicin in an environment where the fungus is likely to grow, and very little in drier areas where the fungus is not a danger.” (Gorman, J. A Perk of Our Evolution: Pleasure in Pain of Chilies. The New York Times, Sep. 20, 2010; see
Other products use compounds from the pepper. Pepper spray is perhaps the best-known product that uses capsaicin. The spray is also sometimes called “OC spray,” since it contains oleoresin capsicum. The 1995 ChemMatters article “Pepper Power” describes it: “Twenty kilograms of dried, whole peppers, when treated with solvents, yields about one kilogram of crude extract known as oleoresin capsicum (OC). OC is a mixture of essential oils, waxes, terpenes, resin acids, and several capsaicinoid compounds, the most potent of which is capsaicin.” (Williams, C. Pepper Power. ChemMatters 1995, 13 (2), p 11) Other products that function to keep undesired organisms away using capsaicin are those such as “Hot Pepper Wax,” a product that:
… is a mixture of capsaicin and wax used to protect apples, grapes, and various vegetables. Walter Wilson, president of the company says, “If insects are coated by the wax, 70% of them are killed because their nervous systems are overstimulated. It causes them to defecate endlessly until they die.” Later, other insects avoid the treated plants because the pepper aroma is irritating. Most pesticides are toxic, which means that their use is tightly regulated; they cannot be applied just before the food is picked and sent to market. In contrast, the government has approved Hot Pepper Wax for application right up to the time of harvest. (Williams, C. Pepper Power. ChemMatters 1995, 13 (2), p 12)
Paints that contain OC may also be able to prevent barnacles from collecting on the bottoms of ships.
Potential medical uses of capsaicin relate to anticancer activity, weight management, and cardiovascular conditions. The Rohrig article describes capsaicin’s use as a pain reliever as it affects the sensitivity of the skin to pain. It is this property that has caused capsaicin-containing products to be banned from use in equestrian sports. In the 2008 Summer Olympics, four horses were actually disqualified from the show jumping competition for testing positive for capsaicin. One of the riders claimed he was using it to treat his horse’s back pain. However, its use had been banned because some riders took advantage of the period of increased sensitivity of the skin to force horses to lift their legs higher over the jumps to avoid the increased pain that would come from hitting the sensitized skin. (
The 1995 ChemMatters article “Pepper Power” offers an extensive explanation of how capsaicin can both cause and relieve pain.
The answer lies in the way nerve cells, or neurons, communicate. Neurons carry messages to and from the brain in the form of electrochemical impulses. Each neuron has a cell body from which protrude dendrites that receive information and an axon that carries the impulses to the other end. At the end of the axon is a gap, or synapse, that separates the cell from the next neuron. The impulse must be transmitted to the next neuron by neurotransmitters (chemicals released by the first neuron), which allow it to cross the synapse and bind to the dendrites of the next neuron. Other types of chemicals, called neuromodulators, also may be released. These do not directly cause transmission of a nerve impulse but affect how easily an impulse can be sent. Neuropeptides — chains of amino acids used by nerves — sometimes act as neuromodulators.
Capsaicin affects the primary sensory nociceptive neurons. These nerves are found in the skin and tongue and originate the pain messages that flow first to the spinal nerves, then to the brain. Primary nociceptive neurons use several neurotransmitters, including the amino acid glutamate and the neuropeptide substance P. Substance P —named for pain — also acts as a neuromodulator and makes nerves more sensitive to pain stimuli.
When a neuron is at rest, its membrane is a selective barrier to ions. Potassium ions are much more concentrated inside the cell, whereas sodium and calcium ions are more concentrated outside. The membrane is riddled with minute holes or ion channels that open and close to control the passage of the ions. Near the outer entrance of the ion channel is a receptor — a protein designed to “fit” only certain molecules. When a molecule fits, the receptor and the ion channel open and let certain ions, such as Na+ and Ca2+, rush in. Once a large number of ions enter the cell, adjacent ion channels change shape, letting in more positive ions, which open neighboring ion channels and so on. This chain reaction of ion flow is the nerve impulse. Eventually, the impulse reaches the end of the axon and releases neurotransmitters that trigger an impulse in the spinal nerves, sending a message to the brain —Ouch! After the neurotransmitter leaves the receptor, the channel closes and the cell pumps the ions back to their original locations.
So what is the effect of capsaicin? When the capsaicin reaches a neuron it binds to a receptor that opens the ion channel for Na+ and Ca2+. This starts the impulse that releases substance P. As a neuromodulator, substance P hypersensitizes neighboring neurons — makes them more easily excited. Now, less stimulation is required to trigger a sensation of pain. What’s more, substance P induces inflammation, which makes the area even more painful. Instead of quickly leaving the receptor, the capsaicin molecule sticks tenaciously, holding the channel open. Na+ and Ca2+ keep entering the cell, triggering impulses and causing intense pain. This explains the intense pain felt by James [earlier described in article as being sprayed with pepper spray] but doesn’t explain capsaicin’s ability to reduce the pain caused by Sharon’s diabetes.
In the clinic, Sharon was given a local anesthetic before capsaicin was applied to her skin. The capsaicin caused massive amounts of substance P to be released. Because the local anesthetic blocked all impulses, she didn’t feel the surge of pain that can stop a criminal. The capsaicin locks open the ion channels until — according to one hypothesis — the cell depletes its supply of neurotransmitter. When the anesthetic wears off, any stimulation of the neuron is less effective because there is not as much substance P left to release. The patient experiences less pain.
Another hypothesis emerged when it was discovered that capsaicin can kill very slender nerve fibers. If the capsaicin locks open the ion channels long enough, the pain-sensing fibers may vital lose [sic] fluids and die.
However it works, the therapy gradually becomes more effective. After a few weeks of treatment in the clinic, patients can skip the local anesthetic and apply the ointment at home. This is not a cure. Many patients must apply the ointment four times a day, and the pain returns within two weeks if the treatment is stopped.
Capsaicin has been used for pain reduction since the early 1980s and, in addition to its use in diabetes treatment, it has been prescribed for osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, postmastectomy pain, and peripheral neuropathies. According to [Dr. Miroslav] Backonja, capsaicin treatment is limited to peripheral conditions in which the painful tissues lie close to the surface and the skin is abnormally permeable because of irritation and damage. It is most effective when used in conjunction with other pain treatments.
(Williams, C. Pepper Power. ChemMatters 1995, 13 (2), pp 12–13)
Because of these various uses and benefits, researchers are interested in increasing the amount of capsaicin produced by chili peppers or finding other effective ways of obtaining capsaicin. There is also a hunt for similar compounds that can serve the same purpose as capsaicin, but without the unpleasant side effects connected with its overwhelming pungency.
More on the Scoville heat scale
Need to make a judgment on how hot a chili pepper is? Making such a decision could be based on something as simple as just taking a bite of the pepper. For example, an article in The Washington Post describes the pepper rating system employed by the company Johnny’s Selected Seeds: “I asked Johnny’s founder Rob Johnston to explain the rating system. His response: ‘Steve Bellavia, our trials manager, takes a bite. Janicka Eckert, our breeder, does, too. They consult.’ Bellavia is a passionate pepper-lover whose palate is one to trust. So is your own, because taste is highly subjective.” (Damrosch, B. Growing Peppers, Hot and Hotter. The Washington Post, May 9, 2012; see The company uses these results to rate the pepper seeds it sells as producing peppers that rank from one pepper (mild) to five peppers (very hot, also described as “mouth-blistering heat”). Looking for a test that’s a little more scientific? Rohrig’s article describes the Scoville heat scale. The design of the test still depends on the subjectiveness of human testers, but adds a quantitative aspect. Chili pepper extract is diluted in increasing amounts of sugar water. Testers continue to taste the samples until they can no longer personally detect the pungency of the chili in the solution they’re tasting. That amount of dilution is then translated into Scoville Heat Units. For an even more quantitative test, HPLC (described in the Background Information section “More on capsaicin” above) can be used to analyze an extract of a chili pepper to determine the amounts of specific chemicals responsible for the pungency of the pepper.
The methods are compared in the New Mexico State University horticulture publication “Measuring Chile Pepper Heat”:
This procedure [Scoville test] can be appropriate in many circumstances because it is more accurate than the taste test (“bite the chile”) technique. The Scoville Organoleptic Test is also less expensive than more advanced laboratory techniques, but it has limitations. Measuring heat with this technique is still subjective and depends on the taster’s palate and sensitivity to the chemicals that are responsible for heat. In addition, there are serious limits on how many samples a taster can handle within a reasonable time.
The most accurate method for measuring heat in chile peppers is high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). … This method is more costly than the Scoville test, but it gives an objective heat analysis. Not only does this method measure the total heat present, it also allows the amounts of the individual capsaicinoids to be determined. In addition, many samples may be analyzed within a short period. The NMSU Chile Breeding and Genetics Program has analyzed more than 5,000 samples using this method and has found it to be reliable and consistent.
As the demand for chile peppers increases, the heat level of the crop is more important, and an accurate and precise measurement of heat is necessary. Several testing laboratories perform the organoleptic and/or HPLC methods. The American Spice Trade Association (ASTA) publishes the procedure accepted by the spice industry.

(Bosland, P.W.; Walker, S.J. Measuring Chile Pepper Heat. Guide H-237; see

History of Wilbur Scoville
Wilbur Scoville presented a paper describing his “Scoville Organoleptic Test” in 1912. However, his connection to chili peppers extends well before that. Scoville had published the book The Art of Compounding in 1895. The book, along with a quote it contained related to chili peppers, is described by Dave DeWitt in a biographical essay on Scoville:
After just three years on the college faculty, when he was just thirty years old in 1895, his best-known work, The Art of Compounding, was published. The book was used as a standard pharmacological reference up until the 1960s. The subtitle of the book, A Text Book for Students and a Reference Book for Pharmacists at the Prescription Counter, gives us a clue as to why the book was so popular—there were two markets for it. I found a copy of this book in Google Books, and here are two notable quotes that I discovered. Scoville was one of the first, if not the first person to suggest in print that milk is an antidote for the heat of chiles. “Milk, as ordinarily obtained,” he wrote, “is seldom used except as a diluent [diluting agent]. In this capacity it serves well for covering the taste of sharp or acrid bodies as tinctures of capsicum, ginger, etc., and for many salts, chloral, etc.”
(The second “notable quote” mentioned in the excerpt above goes on to discuss the issue of addiction rather than chili peppers.)
Over ten years after the publication of this book, Scoville was hired by the pharmaceutical company Parke, Davis & Company. It was his work there on the company’s muscle salve product “Heet” that would lead to the development of the Scoville Organoleptic Test. The term “organoleptic” means involving the use of the sense organs. Scoville’s work is described:
Heet was made with chile peppers and the problem was standardizing the type and the amount of chiles that needed to be added to the other ingredients of Heet to standardize the formulation and avoid burning the skin of the person using it. Scoville was assigned to solve this problem, which took a few years due to his other duties. In the earliest reference to his work on chiles, the American Journal of Pharmacy noted in 1911: “Wilbur L. Scoville presented a Note on Capsicum, showing the great variation in the strength of capsicum, and suggesting the possibility of the pungency of this drug being used as a simple test for quality. This paper elicited some discussion in the course of which it was pointed out that the physiological test for capsicum was infinitely more delicate and more reliable than the similar test that has been proposed for use in connection with aconite.”
At the American Pharmaceutical Association annual meeting in Denver in 1912, Scoville presented a paper on his solution to the Heet problem: the Scoville Organoleptic Test. Albert Brown Lyons, writing in Practical Standardization by Chemical Assay of Organic Drugs and Galenicals (1920), explains. “It is quite possible to form a reasonably ‘exact judgment’ of the ‘strength’ of a sample of the drug [capsaicin] by the simple expedient of testing its pungency. W. L. Scoville proposes the following practical method. Macerate 0.1 gm. of ground capsicum overnight in 100 mils of alcohol; shake well and filter. Add this tincture to sweetened water (10% sugar) in such proportion that a distinct but weak pungency is perceptible to the tongue or throat. According to Scoville official capsicum will respond to this test in a dilution of 1 : 50,000. He found the Mombassa chilles to test from 1 : 50,000 to 1 : 100,000; Zanzibar chillies, 1 : 40,000 to 1 : 45,000; Japan chillies 1 : 20,000 to 1 : 30,000. Nelson found that a single drop of a solution of capsaicin in alcohol 1 : 1,000,000, applied to the tip of the tongue produced a distinct impression of warmth.”

Connections to Chemistry Concepts

(for correlation to course curriculum)

  1. Concentration—The article discusses concentration units of parts per million in connection with determining the concentration of capsaicin in peppers.

  2. Instrumental Analysis—More subjective measurements of how hot a chili pepper is (e.g., eating a pepper directly, Scoville-type testing where pepper extracts are diluted in sugar solutions and tasted) can be contrasted with more objective instrumental analysis (e.g., high performance liquid chromatography) that can be used to determine the amount of capsaicin and related compounds in a chili pepper.

  3. Polarity—The structure of capsaicin, including its long nonpolar hydrocarbon tail, can be compared and contrasted with the structures of compounds present in foods and drinks that one might use to combat the heat/pain of eating a chili pepper. The article discusses water, milk, ice cream, and bread.

  4. Biochemistry—The article touches on biochemistry concepts such as the lock-and-key fit of a capsaicin molecule in specific pain receptors and the actions set off in the body by that fit, including the release of neurotransmitters.

  5. Pharmaceutical Chemistry—The article describes the use of capsaicin to treat the pain of conditions such as arthritis, shingles, and sore muscles.

Possible Student Misconceptions

(to aid teacher in addressing misconceptions)

  1. A chili pepper’s seeds are the part that contains the most capsaicin.” The highest concentration of capsaicin in a chili pepper is typically found in the placenta, or membrane, that holds the seeds, rather than the seeds themselves. The seeds do not produce capsaicin, but can absorb some from the placenta.

  2. Chili peppers are related to black pepper.” While both chili peppers and black pepper share a common name, are used as spices, and have a pungency, or spiciness/hotness associated with them, they are not related. The pungency in chili peppers is due to the compound capsaicin, while black pepper’s pungency is caused by piperine.

  3. When you eat a hot pepper, your mouth will show a rise in temperature.” If you placed a thermometer in your mouth after eating a hot pepper, it will not show a rise in temperature. The pepper triggers pain receptors that send a signal to the brain that is interpreted as heat.

Anticipating Student Questions

(answers to questions students might ask in class)

  1. Can eating chili peppers permanently damage your taste buds?” The pungency of chili peppers does not act on taste buds; rather, it interacts with pain receptors in your mouth and throat. Eating chili peppers does not permanently damage your taste buds or the pain receptors. However, while still experiencing the pungency, you may feel that your sense of taste is somewhat dulled.

  2. What’s an unusual food product that contains capsaicin?” Aside from the usual hot sauce products, students might be interested to know that the candy “Atomic Fireballs” contains capsaicin, which provides the burning sensation while eating the candy. The candy has a Scoville heat rating of 3,500. (

In-class Activities

(lesson ideas, including labs & demonstrations)

  1. A titration experiment to quantitatively determine the amount of vitamin C present in green peppers was published in the April 1995 ChemMatters Classroom Guide. It uses an oxidation–reduction titration with iodine. First, a solution made with a 100-mg vitamin C tablet is titrated. Then, an extract of green pepper is prepared and titrated. (Darrow, F.W. ChemMatters Classroom Guide. April 1995, p 3)

  2. The April 1995 ChemMatters Classroom Guide also describes a qualitative demonstration to illustrate the vitamin C content of green peppers:

(… this demonstration is based on one described in Carl H. Snyder’s The Extraordinary Chemistry of Ordinary Things; 2nd edition, Wiley, 1994, ISBN 0–471–31042–5, p. 492). First show the reducing power of vitamin C by putting a vitamin C tablet in about 100 mL of water, swirling for a minute or so to dissolve some of the tablet, and then decanting the water into a Petri dish or small beaker on an overhead. Carefully add a few drops of tincture of iodine … and observe the iodine color disappear. If you add a few drops of ordinary household bleach the iodine color will briefly reappear as the iodide ion is oxidized back to iodine by the bleach. Further oxidations cause the iodine color to disappear, so you have to be careful or you will miss it. Now take a few pieces of green pepper and thoroughly mash them in a little water to extract their vitamin C (a mortar would be useful, but is not necessary). Decant the solution as with the vitamin C tablet and perform the same qualitative test. The same demonstration can be done with paprika or chili powder—use a lot of powder and then filter to remove the powder residue.
(Darrow, F.W. ChemMatters Classroom Guide. April 1995, p 2)

  1. The April 1995 ChemMatters Classroom Guide describes an additional demonstration using peppers that shows their catalytic activity:

Capsicum peppers are members of the Solanacea (or nightshade) family as are tomatoes and potatoes. Like the other Solanacea plants they contain significant amounts of peroxidase, an enzyme that catalyzes the rapid decomposition of peroxides. You can demonstrate this catalytic activity by putting a little 3% hydrogen peroxide in a Petri dish on the overhead and then dropping in a few small pieces of green pepper. In a few moments rapid evolution of oxygen will be seen as bubbles and foam around the pepper pieces (the same thing happens with small pieces of potato).
(Darrow, F.W. ChemMatters Classroom Guide. April 1995, p 2)

  1. A four-page “Harvest of the Month” document for California schools has information about sweet and hot peppers and offers various activities such as a bell pepper taste test, a recipe with peppers, and ways to connect peppers to the school cafeteria. ( - Bell.pdf)

  2. A past “Scientific American Frontiers” episode (“Life’s Little Questions”, Show 904) included a segment on “Why Are Peppers Hot?” The supplementary materials for the show include a recipe for making capsaicin candy. Similar candies have been used to treat mouth sores that can occur during chemotherapy. Students could try such a recipe and taste the candies. (

Out-of-class Activities and Projects

(student research, class projects)

  1. Students could visit local grocery and ethnic food stores to explore the variety of chili peppers available (both fresh and dried). The types could be listed in order of their pungency rating on the Scoville scale. Students could even try a few recipes that use chili peppers; the class could experience different levels of heat for themselves.

  2. Have a “Chips and Salsa Day” for real world experience with capsaicin. Prepare fresh salsa using different types of chili peppers and test the foods/drinks mentioned in the article for their ability to alleviate the capsaicin pain. Students could perform additional research on foods/drinks that potentially alleviate the pain, based on learning about the polarity of compounds in those foods/drinks.


(non-Web-based information sources)
The ChemMatters article “Pepper Power” contrasts the ability of capsaicin to both cause pain through the use of pepper spray and relieve pain through the use of capsaicin in medications for the skin. (Williams, C. Pepper Power. ChemMatters 1995, 13 (2), pp 10–13)

Web Sites for Additional Information

(Web-based information sources)
More sites on chili peppers
Recent research discusses a possible link between personality and a preference for spicy foods such as chili peppers. (
A short report from 2012 discusses the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper and its rise to the top of the list of hottest peppers. (
A post at the LiveScience Web site describes your body’s response if you eat a Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper and includes a video of someone eating an entire Scorpion pepper. (
A new champion? A September 2013 article in The Atlantic discusses the “Carolina Reaper” pepper in “the cutthroat world of competitive chili pepper growing.” (
A news clip discusses research into the use of peppers to treat cancer. The developer and grower of the Carolina Reaper pepper discusses his own use of peppers in the belief that they help to prevent cancer. (
As stated on its homepage, The Chile Pepper Institute is an international, non-profit organization devoted to education and research related to chile peppers.


More sites on capsaicin
A Royal Society of Chemistry podcast discusses capsaicin, including how it caused failed drug tests during the 2008 Olympics—in horses. (
The Royal Society of Chemistry article “Spicing Up Chemistry” discusses the effect capsaicin has on the body. It also shares information on other spices, such as turmeric, cinnamon, and ginger. (
Shimadzu, a scientific instrument company, shows several chromatograms obtained when analyzing capsaicinoids in pepper, pepper sauce, and spicy oil, using HPLC. (
A masters’ thesis presents background information about capsaicinoids and focuses on analytical techniques used with capsaicinoids. (
A high school’s online newspaper describes the visit of an American Chemical Society chemistry textbook author to their high school for “Chips and Salsa Day,” where he presented a lecture on capsaicin. (
More sites on the Scoville heat scale
The New Mexico State University’s College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences offers the publication “Measuring Chile Pepper Heat,” which includes a description of the Scoville Organoleptic Test. (
A biographical essay on Wilbur Scoville traces his career and describes how his research led him to develop the Scoville Organoleptic Test. (
Photographs of ten different varieties of chili peppers are shown with brief descriptions of each, from low to high on the Scoville scale. (
More Web Sites on Teacher Information and Lesson Plans (sites geared specifically to teachers)
A 6-page teacher’s guide briefly describes the Scoville and HPLC techniques for determining the pungency of chilli peppers. It includes several questions related to capsaicinoids, the compounds that give chillies their heat, including their structure. (

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