Last month, a viral trend on TikTok turned into a real-life nightmare when the death of a Massachusetts teenager was linked to the popular One Chip Challenge, in which participants eat extremely spicy chips made by the company Paqui and then see how long they can last without another food or drinks.
The official cause of death is still under investigation, but the internet is abuzz with talk of the dangers of the popular social media dare.
We turned to experts who could shed light on a few questions. Is spicy food harmful to the human body? Why are some people’s tastes more tolerant than others when it comes to flavors? And can too much heat in food kill us?
What happens to your body when you eat spicy food?
We all know that burning sensation after eating a mouthful of cayenne. But where exactly does it come from?
“Hot can mean a lot of things,” said Dr. Lisa Ganju, a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Health. “But the heat-like spice we’re talking about is specifically related to capsaicin, a chemical compound that’s the active component in chili peppers and gives them that flavor.”
Many things happen on a physiological level when we eat spicy foods: sweating, tingling of the lips and mouth, and a burning sensation on the tongue.
Interestingly, these reactions are actually our body’s way of cooling down after capsaicin binds to nerve receptors in our stomach, sending a pain signal to the brain.
Some people may even experience reflux after ingesting the spice.
“From a gastrointestinal perspective, the main thing we think of when we discuss spicy food is reflux,” said Natasha Chhabra, MD, a board-certified gastroenterologist. “Often the recommendation to someone who notices that spicy foods cause reflux or an increase in stomach acid is to limit their intake of spicy foods.”
However, it is important to remember that everyone is wired differently and can experience a range of reactions to spicy food.
Asked why the spice causes reflux, Chhabra noted that there aren’t many medical studies on it.
“The exact mechanism why spicy foods can cause reflux is not well known,” she said. “There’s some suggestion that capsaicin might promote delayed emptying of your stomach, so conceptually if food stays in there longer it might cause reflux…but that’s not well proven.”
Why are some people more tolerant than others when it comes to spicy food?
Perhaps more interesting than what happens after we eat spicy food is the fact that some people actually enjoy the heat, while others have a very limited tolerance for it.
According to Chhabra, this tolerance depends on a number of factors, including genetic predisposition, life experiences and food exposure.
“There’s no exact reason why some people are more sensitive than others,” she said. “For example, some people are more sensitive to red meat than others, and it’s the same concept. It’s genetic.”
That being said, Ganjhu says that continuous exposure to the flavors can potentially increase spice tolerance. It also means that growing up eating chili peppers, Szechuan sauce, and more may actually have contributed to some people’s high heat tolerance.
“Exposure profiles can be involved in the conversation,” Ganjhu said. “Someone may have lived in a house where bland food was eaten and someone else had spicier food, so tolerance has developed over time. Sometimes it’s more of a cultural thing than a physiological thing.
Whatever the factors, it’s clear that there are different levels of spiciness that people can tolerate around the world, causing different bodily reactions. But is there a standard or a limit?
How much heat is too much heat?
According to Chhabra, “There is no set tolerance when it comes to spicy foods.”
“One person can tolerate more than another; it’s not like alcohol where there is a recommended amount of it per person per day.
However, there is a way to measure heat.
Companies aren’t required by law to include spiciness levels on food labels (and, obviously, things like chili peppers and other products don’t even have to come with labels), but there is a way to measure the amount of heat given off by foods: the Scoville scale.
Recorded in Scoville heat units (SHU), the scale measures hotness based on the concentration of capsaicinoids (the “parent family” of capsaicin).
White peppers, for example, measure 0 Scoville heat units, while jalapeños land between the 2,500 and 10,000 rankings. Habanero chili peppers measure between 100,000 and 350,000 Scoville heat units, while Carolina reapers, known for their spicy chili peppers, are well over 1,500,000 (the highest level).
Is spicy food likely to kill you?
The experts we spoke to say it’s unlikely that spicy foods alone will kill you, barring an allergic reaction or food sensitivity.
“I’ve never heard of spicy food killing anyone,” Ganjhu noted, before suggesting that perhaps the severe stomach pain caused by the food could potentially lead to catastrophic situations.
“When it comes to the One Chip challenge, you eat this chip that’s extremely painful and your body practically goes into shock, like it’s been stabbed, and your adrenaline goes up,” she explained, before clarifying that despite these unpleasant effects, actually dying from ingesting spicy food is far from likely.
How can you temper the heat?
Although most people’s reaction after eating spicy food is to drink some water, experts note that the best way to get rid of too much heat is to drink or eat something full of fat, which will help neutralize the sensation. Milk, for example, would be a great option.
In fact, capsaicin is a fat-soluble compound, so it won’t break down in water, no matter how much of it you have.
Chhabra also mentioned chewing gum and throat lozenges. “They increase the production of saliva, which helps neutralize the acidity in the stomach,” she said.