Part 1: Burn Baby Burn

Fact: Capcaisin makes chillies hot.

Put a foot wrong when ordering in your local curry house and you could easily find yourself downing pints of milk to try and stop the fire in your mouth. But what causes that burning sensation?

It’s all down to a single molecule called capcaisin. This molecule causes irritation and a burning sensation in any tissue that it comes into contact with. It looks like this:

 

File:Kapsaicyna.svg
Capcaisin – where the magic happens

 

When you eat a chilli, capcaisin acts on particular receptors in your mouth called TRPV1 channels. These same channels are also activated by hot temperatures, which means that when you eat a chilli your brain gets the same signal as when you burn your tongue. This is why we experience capcasin as a ‘burning’ sensation – as far as our brain is concerned, chillies and heat feel exactly the same.

The heat of a chilli depends on how much capcasin it contains, and is measured on the Scoville Scale. The hottest chilli on record is the Carolina Reaper, with a whopping score of 1.6 million. To put this into scale, a Jalapeño clocks in at a mere 1,000 – 10,000 units.

This scale isn’t very robust though: it relies on the subjective judgement of a panel of professional chilli tasters, who have to spend their days drinking chilli-infused water. Rather them than me.

‘Another one of Mr Shaunak’s Little Bites of Science’
Image under Creative Commons License, taken by Sreejithk2000:

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