The strange tale of competitive chile eating

Kevin Farrell

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A 34-year-old competitive eater recently landed himself in a Cooperstown, NY emergency room after eating one of the hottest peppers in the world. The Carolina Reaper pepper caused the man to suffer a bout of “thunderclap headaches” brought on by Reversible Cerebral Vasoconstriction Syndrome, a tightening of blood vessels in the brains more often associated with drug abuse than afternoon eating.


The powerful pepper that made the knockout blow clocked in at 1,641,183 Heat Units on the Scoville Scale, the measurement system used for tracking capsaicin concentration – and thereby piquancy, or heat – in peppers. A jalapeño pepper, for comparison, ranks at a humble 8,000.

But the truly interesting story isn’t the one-off case of a man headed straight from the pepper-eating contest to the hospital. It’s the story of how the Scoville Scale came to be in the first place, and how the system came to inspire first, competitive pepper eating, and then competitive pepper breeding.

Pharmacist and professor William Scoville invented the Scoville Organoleptic Test in 1912 to answer the singular question: How much sugar water solution must be added to ground chili powder before no discernible traces of capsaicin “heat” remain when consumed? Or in layman’s terms: How hot is this pepper?

While Scoville deserves credit for being the first to even attempt to come up with an answer grounded in science, his initial system was hardly foolproof. Using the original Organoleptic test, five people would consume round after round of this ground pepper-sugar-water solution with diminishing amounts of the pepper present until at least three of the five people could no longer detect any heat from the pepper. Sensory differences from person to person and resistance from exposure to capsaicin weren’t accounted for.

Today, scientists use a completely different means of measuring piquancy called High Performance Liquid Chromatography that doesn’t rely on fickle human taste buds. Still, Scoville’s legacy as the godfather of spiciness lingers, and the Scoville Scale remains the name of the measurement spectrum. And speaking of a lasting legacy, Scoville has even been the subject of a Google Doodle.

Bell peppers are a flat zero on the Scoville Scale. Sweet paprika, about 500. Poblanos clock in at 1,250 units, cayenne peppers at 50,000, and the Bird’s Eye chiles so popular across Southeast Asia are 100,000. The Bhut Jalokia, used by members of the Indian military to make chile grenades, possesses 1 Million Scoville units. And there are peppers with even higher heat indexes than that – the Reaper being one of them. Police-grade pepper spray tops the list somewhere between 2 and 5 Million units, depending on dilution.

Anyone who has ever accidentally touched their face after chopping a jalapeño knows that even 5,000 Scoville units can feel hot as hell. And yet, a worldwide competitive pepper-eating circuit has sprung up in recent years, which is to say nothing of the hundreds of people that publish videos of themselves first eating the pepper, and then predictably freaking the heck out in Carolina Reaper Challenge videos.

So why do people subject themselves to molten, burning, wrathful pain (besides 15 minutes of Youtube fame)? University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin, Ph.D. has floated the theory of Benign Masochism, in which exposure to temporary trauma creates a pleasurable counter response from your body. When eating a painfully spicy pepper, your brain is smarter than your body. Your mind knows the hellfire in your throat will soon pass, but your body does not.

Adrenaline, dopamine, and other endorphins are chemically created and released into your brain and bloodstream in order to calm you through the traumatic experience. When the fleeting pain of the pepper passes, you’re left with a body jacked up on self-made euphoric drugs. Dialing the knob all the way to icy cold in the last moment of a shower, deep tissue massage, and eating very stinky cheeses produce the same effect, albeit on a much smaller scale.

It’s possible to become somewhat addicted to that rush. Or to at least want to achieve it again and again. The problem with Benign Masochism though, is that the biggest high is achieved by exposing yourself to a degree just below the threshold where the experience becomes totally unbearable. Repeated exposure to the same degree of pain, in this case the same spicy peppers, eventually produces a diminished high. In order to achieve the same high over time, you need to increase the pain. 

In 2016, the Carolina Reaper that made so many headlines this week was in fact certified the hottest pepper in the world, at just under 1.6 Million Scoville units. Just a few years prior, it was the Moruga Scorpion and its 1.2 Million Scoville units that boasted the top spot. And just last year, Pepper X became the hottest, at 3.18 Million units. Great explorers aren’t out in the world plucking newly discovered peppers from lush valleys never before touched by humans. What is happening here instead is competitive pepper eaters beget competitive pepper breeders.

The Carolina Reaper was the product of decades of work by Smokin’ Ed Currie of Puckerbutt Pepper Company. After discovering a love of pepper growing in college, Currie began experimenting with cross-breeding. His world-famous Reaper was created by combining a Ghost Pepper plant with a habanero. “You look for traits in one pepper, and you look for traits in another,” he says. “You try to combine them and keep both those traits.”

Currie isn’t the only one in the world practicing this sort of capsaicin alchemy, but he very well may be the best at it. That aforementioned Pepper X that dethroned the Carolina Reaper? Also one of Currie’s peppers. In fact, he claims to have several unreleased peppers with higher Scoville ratings than even Pepper X, just simmering in his gardens like the burn on the back of your tongue after eating one, ready to be sent to Guinness Book of World Records for certification the moment that anyone else dares to try taking the title from him.

If and when Currie releases his secret weapons, there will no doubt be plenty of hellfire chasers ready to chow down on them. But it’s always good to have a backup plan just in case. Maybe that’s why a description for Carolina Reaper seeds for sale says, “Uses include hot sauces, salsas, cooking, settling old scores and combat”.


Kevin Farrell

About Kevin Farrell

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