How hot is wasabi and can we use the Scoville scale to compare it to hot peppers?
The Scoville scale has been in use since 1912 and was created by the American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville.
Scoville devised a technique to measure the spiciness of chili peppers.
How Hot is Wasabi?
Wasabi is not spicy and hot as chili peppers are. It is not on the Scoville scale because it is not a pepper. Thus, there is no scientifically accurate numerical response to how hot wasabi is.
The wrong concept
Asking ‘How hot is wasabi in Scoville?’ is like asking, ‘How loud is a purple, blue, yellow, and pink shirt in decibels?’ or ‘How tall are Aesop’s Fables in feet?’
These flawed questions all display the same fundamental misunderstanding of getting mixed up between a physical scale and a concept.
For example, a ‘loud shirt’ is an idiomatic expression meaning a garish shirt with bright colors that contrast and clash with one another; a shirt that is an eyesore and difficult to look at.
We cannot measure this sort of ‘loudness’ on the same scale as we measure the loudness of a sound, which we do in decibels.
The Scoville Scale
It is believed that the Scoville scale was initially built on the ‘Scoville Organoleptic Test’ developed by Wilbur Scoville.
The sample made of chili is prepared and then repeatedly diluted with water till test subjects can no longer feel any sensation of heat.
The extent to which test subjects could (subjectively) not taste any more heat was referred to as SHU (Scoville Heat Units).
As you might imagine, this subjectivity was tremendously flawed because it did not depend on objective standards that could be independently verified.
A central tenet of the scientific method is that anyone can independently test and verify any scientific claim.
Because of this fundamental problem, the Scoville Scale does not use subjective tests today.
The modern Scoville Scale
The modern Scoville Scale is divided into units called Scoville Heat Units (SHU) and measures the capsaicin content in varieties of chili pepper.
This is much the same as how we measure physical temperature in units called degrees, whether those degrees are Fahrenheit or Celsius.
Today, we analyze the content of capsaicin found in chili peppers with (HLPC) High-Performance Liquid Chromatography. (Chromatography is the process of breaking down a liquid into various components.)
Through HLPC, we can determine the pungency by determining the amount of capsaicinoid present in the chili peppers.
This results in the ASTA (American Spice Trade Association) severity level.
When we plug the ASTA severity levels into formulas, scientists can determine what the SHU (Scoville Heat Unit) of the chili pepper is.
Wasabi is not a chili pepper!
Unfortunately, all the foregoing is virtually irrelevant for determining wasabi’s pungency, since wasabi is a root rather than a berry and, most importantly of all, wasabi does not contain any capsaicinoids.
As such, HLPC tests run against wasabi concentrates will always return zero Scoville heat units.
Is wasabi zero on the Scoville scale?
As explained earlier throughout this article, wasabi cannot be measured on the Scoville Scale, so no, wasabi does not score zero SHU.
If this confuses you, or you instinctively feel that the answer is wrong, consider this question:
‘How cold is the height of a standard basketball hoop?’ Is the answer ‘0°F’ because the height of a basketball hoop cannot be measured on a temperature scale, or is the answer ‘That doesn’t make sense.’?
Zero capsaicinoids in wasabi aren’t the same as, say, zero capsaicinoids in a mild green pepper.
In both of these examples, like is not being compared with like, and the comparison is therefore nonsensical.
How eating wasabi feels a bit like eating a pepper
If an irritating chemical, like onion, wasabi, mustard oil, or car exhaust — comes into close contact with the receptor, it triggers the cell into sending distress signals to the brain.
The brain responds by causing your body to sting and burn, itch and cough. It also causes choking, coughing, or even tears.
Wasabi’s spicy flavor is caused by light volatile oils similar to mustard.
Wasabi-from the root of the plant ‘Wasabia japonica’- requires a special climate and can only be grown within the US, Korea, Japan, and China.
With chili peppers, it’s all about capsaicin
Capsaicin targets TRPV1, which is responsible for controlling body temperature.
It is also the reason why people feel heat or feel painful scalding.
With food, TRPA1 protects us from foods that are harmful to us or could irritate us by making us tear up, cough, or choke.
With wasabi, it’s all about allyl isothiocyanate
As mentioned previously, capsaicin is a natural oil, and it is this oiliness that results in the chili residue staying in our mouths, causing pain.
Allyl isothiocyanate, on the other hand, is highly volatile, so almost as soon as you swallow it, it swiftly begins to disappear, typically through your nose.
The good thing is that, unlike chili peppers, the burning sensation does not last long as the allyl isothiocyanate rapidly vanishes.
Comparing wasabi and chili peppers’ hotness
Comparing peppers with other foods is a mistake since the way the human body perceives heat within the human body differs significantly between the two. Here are general examples of Scoville Heat Units for peppers:
- Jalapeno peppers: 2,500 to 10,000 SHU.
- Habanero peppers: 100,000 to 300,000 SHU.
- Ghost peppers: 750,000 to 1,500,000 SHU.
However, because wasabi cannot be on the Scoville scale, all we can do is use subjective impressions reported anecdotally.
If you are prepared to countenance such an unreliable source of information, then anecdotally at least, wasabi is said to cause discomfort that is similar to mid-range Jalapeno peppers.
Frequently Asked Questions About How Hot is Wasabi
Is it true that most wasabi is fake?
Well, ‘fake’ is a very strong word to use, but perhaps it is not inaccurate. Products sold as wasabi are almost always white horseradish imitations colored green, the reason being that genuine wasabi is incredibly expensive.
What makes wasabi so pungent?
The wasabi spice takes its name because of the plant that is indigenous to Japan. But the most important ingredient that is shared by the two is referred to as allyl isothiocyanate. That’s what causes wasabi to be so hot that your receptors go into high gear after you have it.
Is it true that wasabi is bad for you?
Actually, the very opposite is true. ‘Real’ wasabi (i.e., not the green-colored white horseradish kind) has several positive health effects, the best proved to be its beneficial anti-inflammatory action.
Afterword: How Hot is Wasabi?
Wasabi is not spicy or hot the same way as chili peppers, although it can sometimes feel as if it is.
The reason for the similarity is that wasabi triggers many of the same receptors and, therefore, physical reactions-as does the capsaicin in chili peppers.
However, there is a genuine chemical difference, and chili peppers can achieve levels of ferocious hotness that wasabi simply cannot.