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  • Writer's pictureCarol Anne Jones

Hot and Spicy

I took a local trip last Saturday to see the Beijing Hot and Spicy Fest 2021, a popular festival now into its fourth year, filled with two days of spicy food and drinks, live music, including the chilli eating contest, where this year nine contestants piled different types of peppers down their throats. Brave people!

Last year Beijing was perpetually fighting off new surges of corona virus cases but now with about half the city's vaccinated the festival this year continued. My friend was taking part in the contest and while the crowd watched, each type of pepper in each round was offered to the audience to taste. I only got as far as the first one! As anyone who's ever eaten a really hot chilli knows, they can cause a lot of pain. Chillies come in many shapes, colours, sizes and strengths, but one thing they have in common is the burning sensation they cause in your mouth, eyes and any other part of your body that comes into contact with them. The hottest part of a chilli is in fact the white spongy layer you find inside, called the placenta, that burning sensation is mainly caused by a chemical called CAPSAICIN, which is found in tiny glands in the chilli's placenta.

While the health promoting properties of chillies may not be fully understood, Joshua Tewksbury (a natural historian at the University of Washington) thinks the burning sensation we experience when we come into contact with chillies is an evolutionary trick;

We're not actually being damaged by the capsaicin the way we would be if we were touching a stove, but our brain thinks we are. All mammals experience the same sensation unlike birds who do not, they can eat chillies like popcorn and they don't feel the heat.

The plant evolved to repel animals that might crush its seeds with their molars, but not ones that would help disperse them. In humans, chillies evolved to repel microbes, very useful in the days before medicine and refrigeration, when people were vulnerable to bacteria that could harm them directly or cause their food to spoil. Chillies can kill or inhibit 75% of such pathogens. Columbus brought capsicum seeds back from the New World in 1493, and then Portuguese merchants took the plants to Asia, where they would transform the cuisines.

Researchers (Cornell University) point out that the greater use of spices in countries such as India, Thailand and China were likely to be linked to their anti microbial function. This correlation with a hot climate, along with the attendant risk of infectious disease, was greater than the link with the right growing conditions for the spices. In other words, humans in dangerous climates developed a taste for chilli which probably saved them a lot of lives.

Chillies are also a great source of antioxidants. Forty two grams of the spice would account for your recommended daily allowance of vitamin C and they’re also rich in vitamin A, as well as minerals such as iron and potassium; however Zigang Dong (Hormel Institute of the University of Minnesota) claimed that the spice's benefits for health are laid alongside a long list of counter-claims, pointing to negative effects, indicting that it’s best to eat chillies in moderation.

Probably it is harmful in the stomach or oesophagus because capsaicin itself can cause inflammation, and if anything can cause inflammation or so called burning effect, it must cause some cell deaths and therefore the long-term chronic inflammation is maybe harmful.

So which are the spiciest chillies based on the Scoville Units scale?

Bell Pepper: SHU 0 (zero)

Banana Pepper and Pepperoncini Peppers: SHU 100-500

Anaheim Pepper: SHU 500-2,500

Poblano Pepper: SHU 1,000-2,000 (originating from Mexico)

Jalapeno Pepper: SHU 2,500-5,000

Serrano Pepper: SHU 6,000-23,000 (originating from Mexico)

Chile de Arbol Pepper: SHU 15,000-30,000 (originating from Mexico)

Cayenne Pepper: SHU 30,000-50,000

Tabasco Pepper: SHU 30,000-50,000 (named after the Mexican state of Tabasco)

Bird’s Eye/Piri Piri/Thai Chilli Peppers: SHU 50,000-250,000 (originating from South America and now found in Africa and Thailand)

Habanero Pepper: SHU 100, 000-350,000 (originating from the Amazon)

Scotch Bonner Pepper: SHU 80, 000-400,000 (most commonly used in Caribbean cuisine)

Ghost Pepper: SHU 850, 000-1,050,000 (native to India used to deter wandering animals from eating crops)

Carolina Pepper: SHU 1,500, 000-2,200,000 (holds the title for the world’s hottest pepper!)

Therefore chilli lovers beware the Carolina Pepper and happy eating!

The Scoville scale is a measurement of the pungency (spiciness or "heat") of chilli peppers, as recorded in Scoville Heat Units (SHU), based on the concentration of capsaicinoids, among which capsaicin is the predominant component.

Please note: Sunday's festival (day two) was cancelled despite mass vaccinations due to fears of a resurrgence of the covid virus.

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