Oxford Chilli Tester to Redefine Heat
17 Sep 2013

A chilli sensor developed at the University of Oxford is to be manufactured by Singapore spin-out, Bio-X (S) Pte. Ltd. to bring standardization for heat in the food industry. The mass-produced sensor could see the ubiquitous chilli symbols on food packaging replaced by Scoville units. The sensor measures the levels of capsaicinoids, chemicals in chillies that gives us the characteristic ‘heat’. The most common method of assessing the heat at the moment involves a panel of tasters – which takes time, incurs costs and often yields variable results. The handheld Chilli Tester uses nanotechnology to give an accurate measure in minutes.

The technology is licensed from Isis Innovation, the Technology Transfer Company of Oxford University, by Bio-X Ltd., a Singapore company that already deals with chemical sensors. The CEO of Bio-X (S) Pte. Ltd., Mr. Donald Foo, explained the attraction of chilli sensor technology: “With a Chilli Tester to measure the spiciness and grade products, it will provide a common understanding for heat. Spiciness is subjective and varies from culture to culture. An Asian’s tolerance for spiciness is generally different from a European’s.”

“Both suppliers and users of chillies can be assured of the quality by using a simple handheld device. Initially, we expect to see the Chilli Tester being used by food manufacturers to determine the quality of their raw materials, and chilli farms to grade their products – but the full potential of the Chilli Tester will be realized in giving the consumer a number that they can use in deciding on sauces and other food products.”

The well-established Scoville method involves diluting a sample until five trained taste testers cannot detect any heat from the chilli. A sweet pepper will registers as 0 Scoville units, a sweet chilli sauce is about 500 Scoville units and the extremely hot Bird’s eye chill is 100,000 Scoville units!

Other scientific methods of measuring Scoville units involve a cumbersome HPLC (High performance liquid chromatograph) which is expensive, and requires time from trained staff for sample preparation and analysis. An inexpensive, quick test may also find its way into laboratories as more research is done into the health benefits of chilli.

The sensor was developed in the Oxford electrochemistry labs of Prof Richard Compton. There are plans to develop other sensors for garlic, turmeric, onion and pepper. Bio-X hopes to manufacture ‘Multi-Spice Checkers’ as these technologies come online. Jamie Ferguson, Technology Transfer Team Leader at Isis Innovation said: “The electrochemical technique used in the Chilli Tester is very well established. With Bio-X manufacturing the tester, it now becomes accessible to everyone. Being quite sensitive to chillis – I can’t wait!”

The Chilli Tester will be displayed and demonstrated at the Fiery Foods UK Chilli Festival end of this month.

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Sarah Thomas
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