Thanks to hybridization, chili peppers are now spicier than ever before. But can too much heat harm your body?
Ed Currie wasn’t looking to make the world’s hottest pepper when he began crossbreeding chilies from around the globe in 2003. He was trying to raise the levels of capsaicinoids, compounds found in peppers because he believes they have medicinal properties and can help protect against heart disease and cancer. “I wanted more of that good stuff,” Currie told BuzzFeed News. The most common capsaicinoid is capsaicin, which gives the pepper its fiery edge.
So when Currie, founder of the PuckerButt Pepper Company in Fort Mill, South Carolina, hybridized plants using nine chili peppers from Asia and one from the Caribbean, he also created something spicier than anything he’d ever tasted. The now world-famous “Carolina Reaper.”
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“I knew it was hot because when we gave them out to everyone, they started vomiting,” Currie said. After a few successful growing seasons, Currie determined where the pepper ranked on the Scoville scale, which uses Scoville heat units (SHU) to measure capsaicin. It was 2005 when he teamed up with chemistry professor Cliff Calloway and his team of graduate students at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. “His initial measurement [1.56 million SHUs] was the hottest pepper he’d ever seen,” Currie said.
According to Currie, the Carolina Reaper ranges between 1.5 million and 2 million SHUs, depending on the pepper and the growing season. That’s about 600 times hotter than a jalapeño pepper at 2,500–8,000 SHU and about eight times hotter than a habanero, which ranges between 200,000–350,000 SHU.
In other words, the Carolina Reaper is nearly off-the-charts spicy — or as Currie said, “stupid hot.” It won the Guinness World Record for its hottest chili pepper in 2013, dethroning the “Trinidad Scorpion Butch T” pepper. The Repear has retained the title since, although Currie said he’s already bred another pepper nearly twice as hot, called “Pepper X.”
Chili peppers aren’t new. The potent plants — which belong to the capsicum genus in the nightshade family — have been around for thousands of years, originating in Central America and spreading to other continents through trade and globalization. The heat-causing capsicums have become a dietary staple in cultures worldwide, valued for their flavour and ability to prevent food spoilage in hot climates.
What’s new is that they are now hotter than ever before, and the dramatic increase in record-breaking peppers is a rise in people who eat them in a way that’s almost an extreme sport.
From hottest pepper eating contests and extreme menu items that require liability waivers to videos on social media of people eating the Carolina Reaper, Bhut jolokia (ghost pepper), and Samyang “fire noodles”. It’s not hard to find people rising to a spicy challenge that often ends in pain and tears. You might’ve seen the mega-viral clip from YouTuber Lizzy Wurst of her and a friend trying to stomach Carolina Reapers. It does not end well.
“Hot culture,” as Currie calls it, is a growing community of people who can’t get enough of the heat. They often eat peppers like the Carolina Reaper for fun, participate in deathly hot wing challenges, and show off their spice tolerance at hot sauce expos around the country. “We’re all a big family,” he said.
While some can tolerate super hot peppers and champion spicy food for its health benefits, others have less-than-pleasant experiences and even wind up in the emergency room.
Whether you love or hate the heat, one thing is sure: the more spice, the more it hurts. What exactly are hot peppers and other spicy foods doing to our bodies, and is it possible to harm yourself by eating too much? And if the heat is painful, why do we love it so much?
We spoke to a few experts to find out.
Here’s what happens as soon as you bite into a hot pepper.
Capsaicin is an irritant for all mammals, and it causes a burning sensation when it comes into contact with any skin or mucous membrane. In the mouth, capsaicin bypasses your taste buds and binds to pain receptors on the tongue called TRPV1.
“Your tongue has lots of nerve endings, so when capsaicin hits that area and triggers a chemical response between nerve endings, which sends a signal to the brain,” Dr. Vivek Kumbhari, director of bariatric endoscopy at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, told BuzzFeed News. Capsaicin also binds to receptors on the tongue that detect heat, which is why spicy food feels “hot.”
So “spiciness” isn’t a taste; it’s a sensation of pain and heat produced by a chemical reaction between capsaicin and sensory neurons. The pepper might have its flavours, but “spiciness” isn’t one of them. “The Carolina Reaper has a great flavour, it’s really sweet when you first eat it…then a few seconds later, it’s like molten lava in your mouth,” said Currie.
Capsaicin tricks the brain into thinking there’s an actual change in temperature in the body. Your tongue is like a piece of hot coal, and each breath makes you feel like a human flamethrower. Even though the spice isn’t burning you, the brain gets the same signals as if it was and reacts accordingly.
As a result, the body will try to cool itself down. “One way our body does this is by sweating, and another way is by breathing fast,” Kumbhari said. That’s why you may start panting and feel bullets of sweat rolling down your forehead when eating a super spicy meal.
In addition to cooling things down, your body will try to rid itself of the fiery substance by ramping up the production of saliva, mucus, and tears. “The capsaicin micro-particles will go up into the nose, and your body will try to flush it out … which is why you get a runny nose,” said Kumbhari. You may also drool and get watery eyes.
Spicy food can turn anyone into a snotty, crying mess. And you may instinctively reach for water, but this can spread the heat. Capsaicin only dissolves in fats, oils, and alcohol. So dairy products like a cold glass of milk or a spoonful of ice cream and fat-containing foods like peanut butter and avocados are much more effective for easing the pain.
The good news? That mouth-on-fire feeling only lasts for a limited amount of time. Because the sensation of heat and pain is from a chemical reaction, it will eventually fade once the capsaicin molecules neutralize and stop binding to the receptors.
Typically, this takes about 20 minutes, Currie said. Depending on the person and the pepper’s heat, it may take longer. But rest assured, and your tongue will return to normal. However, the capsaicin may burn or cause discomfort as it goes down.
Spicy food may hurt to eat, but it won’t burn or damage the digestive tract.
After you swallow spicy food, it can fire off more pain receptors in the esophagus membrane and produce a burning sensation in the chest. This is not the same as heartburn, which is caused by acid regurgitation into the esophagus from a leaky valve to the stomach, but it may feel similar.
Like the fiery pain capsaicin causes in the mouth, the esophageal sensation is only temporary — and it won’t burn you.
There is still some debate about whether spicy food leads to indigestion or dyspepsia, a nonspecific term for pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen, according to Dr. David Poppers, a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Health in New York City, told BuzzFeed News. But capsaicin alone is not thought to trigger a chronic problem in people with a healthy gastrointestinal system. For some, moderate amounts of spicy food may even help with indigestion. However, it might be an issue if you have an existing gastrointestinal health problem (more on that later).
Spicy food may also affect the lungs and cause hiccups on its way down to the stomach. The theory is that capsaicin irritates the phrenic nerve, which serves the diaphragm, the muscle that helps us breathe. This irritation can lead to involuntary spasms of the diaphragm, aka hiccups. The increase in breathing rate might also cause you to swallow some air, said Kumbhari, which can end up in the stomach and cause belching or bloating.
When capsaicin enters the stomach, it can stimulate the production of gastric mucus and temporarily speed up metabolism. As your stomach works to digest the spicy food, you may experience pain or cramping, but it won’t cause actual damage. If the food is hot, it may lead to nausea or vomiting. But if you’re eating something reasonably spicy, you should be able to stomach it.
In the intestines, capsaicin triggers a reaction, increasing the rate of digestion. This can be helpful if you’re eating food that takes longer to digest, but it can also speed things up a little too fast. “The capsaicin can stimulate nerves and draw water into the small bowel, causing it to distend and contract aggressively, which then causes diarrhea,” said Kumbhari.
Not everyone gets the runs after eating spicy food, but for those who do — it might burn on the way out just as much as it burned on the way in. “The tissue that lines the upper intestinal tract also lines the anus, so people can get perianal burning if they eat very spicy food,” Poppers said.
That anal burning sensation is uncomfortable for most people. But it could be unbearably painful if you have hemorrhoids or an anal fissure, a relatively common problem with a small tear in the lining of the anal canal. The pain will eventually fade, but even the softest toilet paper is no match for a bad butt burn.
However, some people probably should avoid the heat.
Spicy food can exacerbate symptoms like heartburn or discomfort for people with an underlying problem that causes indigestion, such as acid reflux (GERD), a stomach ulcer, or gallbladder issues. There’s no evidence that capsaicin will cause a stomach ulcer, most often due to a Helicobacter pylori bacterial infection or long-term use of NSAID pain relievers like ibuprofen. But it can aggravate an existing one.
And hot foods might be a problem for people with ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel diseases, or Celiac disease, a reaction to gluten that can damage the intestines.
“If you take people with poor bowels, for example, like people with Crohn’s or Celiac disease, where the protective barrier in the intestines doesn’t have good integrity, capsaicin can make things a lot worse,” Kumbhari said. People with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which can cause diarrhea and constipation, may also want to avoid spicy foods. In these cases, capsaicin may not cause inflammation, but it can worsen symptoms.
However, there is also some evidence that capsaicin could benefit your health, and it’s even used in topical creams for muscle and joint pain. “Some studies have shown that it has anti-inflammatory properties and potential anti-tumour properties, so although spicy food can be irritating, it can also be the opposite,” Poppers said. The extent to which capsaicin can combat or prevent illness is still debatable, but some experts and spicy-food enthusiasts like Currie remain hopeful.
So the world’s hottest peppers won’t harm healthy people. Right?
You might still be wondering, how hot is too hot? Can eating too much spicy food harm you? The answer is…yes and no. Theoretically, spicy food could seriously hurt you at high enough levels — but your body probably wouldn’t let that happen. You would have to keep eating scorching food past the point of sweating, shaking, vomiting, and maybe feeling like you’ll pass out. So it’s safe to say spicy food won’t kill you.
Perhaps you’ve heard the stories of people getting hurt during hottest pepper–eating contests, which seem like terrifying cautionary tales for spice lovers. There’s the 34-year-old man who suffered from a rare thunderclap headache and had constricted blood vessels in his brain after eating a Carolina Reaper. Then we have the 47-year-old who went to the hospital with a spontaneous esophageal rupture or “Boerhaave syndrome” after eating a ghost pepper.
But there’s no need to panic. According to the experts, these cases are rare. These people were participating in hottest pepper eating contests, noshing on stuff beyond a reasonable spiciness and at an unusually high quantity and rate. Most of us aren’t scarfing down record-hottest peppers against the clock. But if you are participating in a contest, be mindful of your body and stop if you start to feel sick.
The only group Currie actively warns not to eat his hottest peppers is children, especially if they are under eight or not used to spicy food. “They do not understand what’s going on with their bodies, and it can be very frightening or traumatic and keep them from learning about culinary pleasures in the future,” Currie said.
So why does spicy food still send some adults to the hospital? The fiery effects of capsaicin in the body can feel shocking or even scary. The throat-burning sensations might even feel similar to an allergic reaction, prompting some people to fear that they are going into anaphylactic shock (which won’t happen unless you have a rare capsaicin allergy). There have been claims of extremely hot peppers cause people to feel numb or hallucinate.
Even if you know that the pain will go away after a while, it can still be a horrible experience. So yes, people may seek medical care when the heat feels unbearable.
What happens at the hospital? Not much, according to the experts. People may receive IV fluids or cold towels to help their bodies cool down; otherwise, it’s mostly a waiting game. This applies to people who have eaten hot peppers and those who have received oral sex from someone who has eaten the hottest peppers. Yes, that is a thing. In general, it’s not a good idea to get capsaicin anywhere near your genitals — whether it’s from your own hands or someone else’s mouth. And keep it out of your eyes, too.
So it’s important to use caution and be careful with chili peppers or other spicy foods. Wear plastic gloves while handling and preparing peppers, and after carefully removing them, wash your hands with soap before touching anything, especially your face. You might need eye goggles too — like the ones you wore in chemistry class — if you’re cutting or blending peppers high on the SHU scale, said Currie.
If you know you can’t tolerate spicy food or it causes you to vomit or feel horrible, don’t eat it or use your discretion. But if the worst happens and you accidentally eat a hotter-than-normal meal or a fiery pepper, try to stay calm — the burning sensation will pass.
Why do we love the painful burn of spicy food, and how are some people able to handle it better than others?
One explanation is a theory called benign masochism, coined by Dr. Paul Rozin, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. It refers to situations in which humans can enjoy initially negative experiences — like the burn of a chili pepper or the stomach-flipping sensation of riding a rollercoaster.
Repeatedly eating spicy food and recognizing that it won’t harm you, even though it hurts, we can turn the burn into a positive gastronomic experience, a process that Rozin calls “hedonic reversal.” That’s true as long as the level of spice is not intolerable, at which point the pain might outweigh the pleasure — everyone has their limit.
“Most people who enjoy spicy food were socialized to do so… it may be possible that some people like it the first time if it’s mild, but I doubt that anyone likes [spicy food] the first time if it’s extreme,” Rozin said. It helps if there are social pressures, like everyone in your family or friends eating spicy food. It also helps if the spicy food is also delicious.
So why can some people power through a Sichuan hot pot while others can’t handle a few drops of Tabasco sauce? People aren’t born with a genetic tolerance to spicy food or an affinity for heat, nor are spicy food lovers less sensitive to the burning effects of capsaicin. Some people are better able to tolerate the pain, either because they were raised on spicy food or eat it frequently.
Over time, your body can develop a tolerance to spiciness, and you’ll have to kick it up a notch to get the same burning sensation. So yes, you can teach yourself to love spicy food. There’s hope for all the jalapeño-fearing, mild-salsa-loving folks out there. Of course, if you genuinely dislike spicy food and don’t want to eat it, that’s okay too.
People who participate in hot pepper–eating contests may have a high tolerance for heat and a desire for the thrill that drives them to sign up for something they know will hurt. Some people get pleasure from testing their body’s limits. Others, perhaps, do it to show off.
“Guys will come into the store and see who can get through the [Carolina Reaper] challenge; it’s all a machismo thing,” Currie said. There’s no question that some of those people have ended up on the floor feeling extreme regret.
Whatever your reasons for eating fiery foods, it’s safe to say that you aren’t putting your health at risk in the process. Even though you may feel like you’re dying, hot peppers won’t kill you or cause any lasting damage to the body. The unbearable heat is temporary; over time, you can train yourself to manage it like a champ. And if you still want something hotter, Ed Currie is working on the next-generation hottest pepper to satisfy that desire.