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Testing Chili Peppers

WACO, Texas (Ivanhoe Newswire) -- you can find them in Mexican and Asian cuisine, hot sauce, medicines, even tear gas … Chile peppers put the heat in all kinds of products these days. Measured on a standard called the Scoville heat scale, they range from zero for a mild bell pepper to a scorching 100,000 for a habanera. But if you'd like to know how hot that pepper is before you take a bite, science may have the answer.

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At La Fiesta, Sam Castillo's Mexican restaurant in Waco, Texas, the secret to the hot sauce is the chilies. But, with these hot peppers, it's not just about their color or size.

"Sometimes they're hot," Castillo told Ivanhoe. "Sometimes they're not. Sometimes they're really big. Sometimes they're smaller. Tends to be the smaller the jalapeno the hotter it is. The only way you can really tell if the hot sauce has the right hotness to it is to taste it."

Peppers are hot because of a family of chemicals called capsaicinoids. Using liquid chromatography, scientists can physically separate the specific chemicals that bring the heat from the pepper, but it can be expensive and time consuming.

Kenneth Busch, Ph.D., an analytic chemist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, developed a new mathematical approach called multivariate regression analysis, where the model learns how hot peppers are so that when it sees an unknown pepper, it can compare it to what it already knows.

Using pepper's "heat" spectrum, the model can estimate almost immediately how hot other similar peppers will be.

"The model takes that spectral data and predicts what the concentrations are," Dr. Busch explained.

He sees all kinds of possibilities, like an instant pepper tester.

"You could have an instrument that you just put the probe up to the pepper and say that's how hot it is," Dr. Busch said.

It's research that could one day help regulate the heat in all kinds of products, to keep consumers from getting burned. But for now Sam says he'll stick to the taste test.

Researchers say the new system for testing the heat of Chile peppers is faster and less expensive than methods currently used by food processors and other manufacturers. Baylor researchers say once those companies see the potential benefits, they're likely to implement their new technique.

The American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.This report has also been produced thanks to a generous grant from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, Inc.

Click here to Go Inside This Science or contact:

Dr. Kenneth W. Busch
Baylor University
Waco, Texas 76798
(254) 710-3311

Mike Breen and Annette Emerson
American Mathematical Society
Providence, RI 02904-2294
(800) 321-4267

Ivars Peterson
Mathematical Association of America,
Washington, DC 20036-1358
(800) 741-9415

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