heat NMSU prof finds world's hottest chile

:P :)
Finally - The Mystery Pepper becomes Reality
Another two years went by until the "Saga Jolokia" made significant progress. Also the Chile Pepper Institute grew and analyzed all sorts of capsicum varieties that were supposed to be "the world's hottest." Most of the time, the results were rather disappointing. One variety showed potential, though -- in 2001, the Institute received seed of a chile named 'Bhut Jolokia' from a member who had collected it while visiting India.

Because of poor fruit and seed set, it took Dr. Bosland several years to have sufficient seed on hand for an extensive field trial. 'Bhut Jolokia' was grown under insect-proof net cages to produce the bulk seed, and by 2004, enough seed was available for the test.

Extensive Field Trial and Tests in New Mexico
Now Dr. Bosland and his colleagues were ready for a large-scale experiment. An extensive study was undertaken, with three goals:

Compare the heat level of 'Red Savina,' 'Bhut Jolokia,' and regular habanero in a replicated field trial

Find out whether 'Bhut Jolokia' truly had a higher heat level than 'Red Savina'

Determine the species designation of the 'Bhut Jolokia.'

The comparison experiment was conducted in 2005 at a plant science research facility close to Las Cruces, New Mexico.
The Great Heat Test: Orange
Habanero, 'Red Savina' and
'Bhut Jolokia', were all part of
an extensive Comparison Experiment.

Using a climate-controlled greenhouse and heat pads, seeds of all three varieties were started and thinned after germination. When seedlings had developed eight to ten true leaves, they were transplanted to the field plots or to 4 liter (1 gal) plastic pots and grown in the greenhouse for DNA extraction. In the field, they were were planted in a sophisticated, randomized pattern, forming blocks of 36 plants each. A single line of plants was spaced 25 cm (about 1 foot) apart within the row and 1m (3 ft.) between rows. The plants were grown using standard cultural practices for growing chile peppers in southern New Mexico. As customary in the "Chile Pepper State", the plots were furrow irrigated throughout the season to maintain optimal plant growth. Fortunately, 2005 weather conditions proved to be favorable for this sort of field test.

Once the fruit had matured, harvest also followed a highly scientific scheme. To get a good fruit average of each variety, the scientists harvested 25 random mature fruits from at least 10 plants. To prepare for HPLC Scoville testing, the whole sample pods were dried and ground.

'Bhut Jolokia' was also used for DNA testing. As most of us know from watching CSI on TV, DNA is the genetic fingerprint of all life forms. Not only bad guys can be identified accurately and quickly that way, but the various species of capsicum as well. So-called RAPD markers show a typical pattern of stripes that can be matched against other samples (RAPD - not to confuse with LAPD - stands for "random amplification of polymorphic DNA" - more on Wikipedia here). To be able to create such fingerprints of various Capsicum species as a reference, the scientists at the Chile Pepper Institute obtained various samples of C. annuum, C. baccatum, C. chinense, and C. frutescens -- these plant materials were acquired from germ plasm collections like the National Plant Germplasm System. For DNA isolation, samples of leaf tissue were taken.

So instead of CSI, we had CPI investigating here. By comparing Bhut Jolokia's RAPD markers with the reference markers, is was possible to determine which species' genes are part of this particular pepper variety. That, of course is much more accurate than just by observing how many pods per node are growing, or by comparing flower types, which is of course still done in addition as well.

Both the HPLC test and the DNA analysis brought valuable insight into this exciting chile pepper from India.

Interesting Results
-- Heat Levels, and who's the Hottest in the World

Let's begin with the capsaicin content using the HPLC test.

Besides the makeup of a pepper cultivar's genes, environmental factors are known to increase or decrease the actual heat level as well, but being able to compare the samples with standard control cultivars from field trials increases the confidence of the heat level measurements. The HPLC data were converted from ppm (parts per million) to SHU by multiplying it by 16. For example, if a total capsaicinoid content of 36000 mg/kg is determined, multiplying this value by 16 would mean 576,000SHU (for SHU, capsaicinoids like capsacin, dehydrocapsaicin etc. are summed up.)

Side note -- Some years back, pure capsaicin was defined as 15 million SHU. Accordingly, the factor 15 then. With current standards' assumption of capsaicin being 16 million SHU, the factor should be 16, not 15. I verified this with both CPI and a certified food lab. Some testers still seem to work with a factor of 15, which gives results that are about 6% lower.

The HPLC analysis revealed that Orange Habanero had a mean (average) heat level of 357,729 SHU. That's quite a bit, but according to Dr. Bosland, this is in the range normally seen for this cultivar in Las Cruces, NM. (I once tasted Jalapeno peppers right from a field close to Las Cruces, and even those "ordinary" peppers were surprisingly hot.)

Now for Bhut Jolokia -- the analysis revealed that it possessed an extremely high heat level indeed, a whopping 1,001,304 SHU. That's a heat level you normally see only with ultra-hot sauces using pepper extract (capsicum oleoresin).

A different kind of surpise was the test result for Red Savina - it scored a rather low heat level of just 248,556 SHU. This means the SHU value for 'Bhut Jolokia' was four times higher than 'Red Savina' -- so much for "the world's current hottest chile pepper" ;-)

In 2004, Assam-based pepper grower Frontal Agritech also had their Bih Jolokia chiles HPLC-tested and reported 1,041,427 SHU, which means two independent results for Jolokia are in the same ballpark. The Northeastern-Indian region allows for two harvests per year, though and there seems to be a certain seasonal heat fluctuation between the two.

Two UK growers reported quite similar results for Naga Jolokia type peppers, using greenhouses.

In general, these heat level results can only serve as a reference. While the hot southern New Mexico desert climate pushed Bih Jolokia to almost one million SHU, pods from the same seedstock may deliver considerably less capsaicin on a raised bed after a rainy summer in Cleveland. Then again, optimized nutrition and environmental conditions in a greenhouse could possibly yield even higher SHU results. In addition to that, unverified third party HPLC results should always be taken with a grain of salt.

Remotely related Anecdote....

While running Peppers on the Pier, a "hot shop" in St. Petersburg, Florida, we employed a great guy as a salesperson, his name was Tom. Frequently shoppers came in and asked "What's the hottest in this store?" -- and Tom would reply: "That would be me."

-- DNA Results

Now let's take a look at the DNA test of 'Bhut Jolokia', researching its species. As mentioned, early Naga Jolokia or Tezpur reports insisted that this pepper would belong to the C. frutescens species. Next came evidence that this was a C. chinese type of chile. So what is it really? Well, it's a chinense, but the frutescens proponnents were not completely wrong.

Among the 19 samples of C. annuum, C. frutescens, C. chinense, and 'Bhut Jolokia', the scientists obtained 136 reproducible and reliable polymorphic RAPD markers to work with. To sum up the rather complex test results, the researchers found eight RAPD markers specific to C. chinense, as well as three markers specific to C. frutescens. No annuum-specific patterns were detected in this Indian chile, but one that was specific to 'Bhut Jolokia'. The genetic similarities among and within the species were calculated by applying some sophisticated algorithms that would be beyond the scope of this article. At the bottom line, the experts obtained a so-called "similarity index value". A totally pure species would mean a value of 1.00, which is rather rare, as most cultivars (= cultivated varieties) contain genes from more than one species through breeding.

The C. annuum samples included in this analysis for reference delivered a similarity index value of 0.86. Similarly, the C. chinense as well as C. frutescens reference samples showed similarity index values of 0.82 and 0.85, respectively. The C. frutescens and C. chinense clusters merged at the similarity index value of 0.45. The the average genetic similarity between C. chinense and 'Bhut Jolokia' was 0.79, which means this chile clearly belongs to the C.chinense species, but has some C. frutescens genes as well.

According to Dr. Bosland, such a genetic species mix is not uncommon, and it is called "interspecific hybridization". As an example, he mentioned the Greenleaf Tabasco cultivar -- it was developed by interspecific hybridization between C. frutescens and C. chinense, followed by repeated backcrossing to C. frutescens. DNA analysis revealed that 'Greenleaf Tabasco' indeed contains some C. chinense genes.

Considering that various C. frutescens peppers are cultivated in northeastern India as well (Indian PC-1 for example), the presence of some frutescens genes in this chinense cultivar should be no surprise. In Assam, plants of C. chinense and C. frutescens could have been grown near each other, allowing for hybridization between them, Paul Bosland remarked. Quite possibly, local farmers knowingly selected for a higher heat chile pepper, eventually leading to the ultra-hot 'Bhut Jolokia'.
-- 2.3 Million Scoville Heat Units for Bhut Jolokia?

Let's return to the heat level issue for a moment. In his conclusion, Dr. Bosland offered an interesting thought - pure speculation, of course:

As we know, the environment can affect the heat level of a chile pepper. Under identical environmental conditions, 'Red Savina' recorded a mean heat level of 248,556 SHU, which is 232% below the highest heat level (577,000 SHU) published for this cultivar in the Guinness World Records. Now, if 'Bhut Jolokia' was grown under the very same conditions that produced the 577,000 SHU for 'Red Savina', a heat level of 2,323,025 SHU could be expected for 'Bhut Jolokia' ;-) Again, this is just a theoretical thought.

Bhut Jolokia, Bih Jolokia, Naga Jolokia -- what the ...?
Bhut Jolokia, Bih Jolokia, Naga Jolokia, Naga Morich, Raja Mirchi ... what's the deal with all those different names you can read in print and on the Internet these days for supposedly the very same chile variety? We asked someone who should know best: Leena Saikia of Frontal Agritech, a pepper grower and processing company in Assam that also grows and cultivates Bih Jolokia. Here's what Leena told me:

"All these chillies are from North East India. They belong to Capsicum chinense. In fact, Naga jolokia, Nagahari, Bhut jolokia, Bih jolokia or Borbih jolokia are the same chilli but named differently at different places. For example, the Assamese community call it as Bih jolokia (poison chilli -- jolokia means chilli in Assamese), Bhut jolokia (probably due to its ghostly bite or introduction by the Bhutias from Bhutan poison chilli) or Naga jolokia (due to extreme hotness representing the aggressive temperament of the warriors of neighbouring Naga community). In Nagaland and Manipur states, it is known as Raja Mircha or Raja chilli (King of Chillies). In major Indian languages, chilli is known as Mirch or mircha (Bengali and Hindi)." Morich" may be a distorted version of 'mirch'.

So how about this chile variety outside Northeastern India? Leena said:

"We fully agree that these are of the same species and type which might have migrated to other nearby states and countries including Bangladesh and Srilanka where this chilli continued to be known as Naga Mircha ("Naga Moresh''). The original seeds of Dorset Naga were sourced from Bangladeshi community of Britain who might have taken the fruits of this chilli from Bangladesh for culinary purposes."

There seem to slight differences between various flavors of this pepper, though. While the Assamese growers (Bih Jolokia) as well as the Chile Pepper Institute (Bhut Jolokia) report two flowers per node for their respective plants, we found clusters of up to five on the Naga Morich test plants we grew in our Pepperworld greenhouse from original "Chileman" seeds.

Also, depending on the source, certain calyx differences are evident, and also in fruit shape. Growing the various peppers next season will hopefully bring more insight, so some updates in the future are possible.

With the potential to have the latest "Hottest Chile on Earth" in their hands that will kick Red Savina off its throne, it is no wonder that various parties are trying to market this pepper as "theirs."

Hotter than the Hottest?
Indeed, some of the latest wave of "World's Hottest Pepper" PR hype came from two chile gardeners in Great Britain. This is no wonder, as the UK has a huge Indian and Bangladeshi community that, among other spicy specialties, enriched the otherwise rather bland British cuisine with curry dishes. In fact, I am rather surprised that there was no sooner news about those ultra-hot Indian peppers in the UK.

Mark McMullan a.k.a. "The Chile Man" advertises "Naga Morich", offering peppers and seeds (Mark also runs a remarkable Chile Database). Joy and Michael Michaud ("Peppers by Post") are promoting their version as "Dorset Naga", also selling pods and seeds as a mail order business. And in Naga Jolokia's country of origin, there's Frontal Agritech, offering the dried fiery pods, grown on their own fields. Last but not least, there's the Chile Pepper Institute, which offers seeds of the Bhut Jolokia chile. Mutual incentive is most likely the desire to be listed in the Guinness World Records, associated with the new "World's Hottest Pepper."

There was even rumor that one party intended to file "their" Naga Jolokia version under the PVP. That's short for Plant Variety Protection Act - sort of a patent and the method Garcia chose to make it so hard for the rest of the world to legally obtain pure Red Savina seeds. As Dave pointed out, this should be impossible with any Jolokia incarnation, as all the various parties did was selecting, not real breeding. Still we wouldn't be surprised at all to see a "Naples Naga" or a "Moscow Morich" ("world's hottest", of course) popping up in the future, even if only on Ebay ;-)

Despite slight differences, all those various flavors of Naga Jolokia seem to have basically the same genetics and origin, and if heat level claims differ, it might be due to environmental influences, growing seasons, or non-standard HPLC tests. Expect any of those peppers to be in the same range - very, very hot. The chile community will greatly benefit from the widened availability through these various sources. It is advised though to buy from reliable sources -- regarding chile seeds, we've heard more than once about disappointing Ebay deals. As chiles love to cross-breed, producing pure seeds takes a lot of effort.

But if any of the above parties would deserve to be listed for the new "World's Hottest Pepper" in the Guinness World Records, it is undoubtedly the people of Northeastern India who have been cultivating and using this pepper for centuries.

And the NMSU Chile Pepper Institute deserves a big applause for once more demonstrating to be the leading organization in capsicum research.

Update: HOT News from Guinness World Records
Update February 2007: At the 2007 New Mexico Chile Conference, held on February 5 & 6 in Las Cruces, Dr. Bosland presented a document he recently received from Guinness World Records, Ltd. -- the certificate that officially declares Bhut Jolokia the "hottest of all spices."

Why Breed such an Ultra-Hot Chile?
I was foolish enough to taste a dried Jolokia pod -- right after sensing a somewhat sweet, fruity flavor, it burns like hell. If the Jolokia's bite is so painful, why did humans create this cultivar? The answer might be that some of the first reports about this pepper were published by the Defense Research Laboratory of India, located in the Assamese garrison town of Tezpur. Obviously this pepper isn't just meant to kick up a fish curry. In the past, capsicum oleroresin, the chile extract used to make ultra hot sauce and pepper sprays, was often produced from cayenne pods. While only in the five-digit SHU range, cayenne is not as picky about growing conditions as chinense peppers like the Naga Jolokia. There's a much wider area to grow cayenne, so from an economical standpoint, it makes sense to use cayenne. But with Jolokia being so much higher in capsacin content, it is no wonder that those interested in spraying the burn are also evaluating the Assamese power pod.

According to Frontal Agritech though, the Jolokia pepper has a long tradition in India, especially in Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. Literature describes its use in traditional medicine for curing all sorts of ailments. This chile is also commonly used there for making pickles and adding heat to non-vegetarian food items and dishes.

With capsaicin content so much higher than in Mexican or Caribbean chiles, I also asked Leena if there were possibly GMO (genetically modified organism) techniques involved in gaining these levels. Leena replied that the existing heat level in Bih Jolokia is inherent, solely maintained by selection at the company's farms. What they're doing is purely natural, not by use of any GMOs. In fact, Frontal Agritech's slogan "Redesigning Agriculture" doesn't refer to any high-tech approach, but to organizing farms in their area and teaching their owners traditional farming, using organic techniques wherever possible.

Heat isn't Everything...
OK, so Bih/Bhut/Naga Jolokia is the new champion in the world of heat. But heat isn't everything. The Assamese growers at Frontal Agritech may be right when pointing out that besides this chile's genes, the unique soil and climatic conditions of their Northeast-Indian regions contribute its properties, which also includes its flavor. Such environmental influences are best known for wine. For example, the Nero d'Avola grape grows fine in Sicily as well as on Italian mainland - but just growing it in Calabria (southern tip of the boot) results in a different aroma -- red wine from this grape is superior when coming from Sicily. Some grape varieties only develop their full potential in Napa Valley, CA, or somewhere else in the world. And in fact, even some chile pepper varieties are tied to geographical regions. If you've ever tasted roasted green New Mexican chiles grown in Southern New Mexico, and for comparison the same chile from your backyard, also roasted over propane, you know what I mean. Europe also has some peppers that thrive best in their original microclimates -- see our reports about Piment d'Espelette in the Basque district France, or Peperoni de Senise in the Basilicata region of Italy.

And while Red Savina quite possibly won't be "The World' Hottest" in the future, it will continue to be a blistering-hot pepper that fiery-foods manufacturers turn into great tasting hot sauce and salsa.
Far too long. 3 word summary, please.

Indian woman planing to eat loads of Bhuts in short time shocker:


Current record: 8 jalapenos in a second. Isn't that like awarding someone a world record for doing the 100 metres sprint in 5 hours? Or giving "world's largest piece of paper" to a square of toilet roll? That's a pathetic amount. I could probably fit 8 jalapenos in my mouth AT THE SAME TIME.

But I digress.