Last month, a viral TikTok trend turned into an actual nightmare when a teen’s death in Massachusetts was reportedly linked to the popular One Chip Challenge, in which participants eat an extremely spicy chip made by the company Paqui and then see how long they can go without other food or drink.
The official cause of death is still being investigated, but the internet is abuzz with talk of the dangers of the popular social media dare.
We turned to experts who could shed some light on a few questions. Is spicy food inherently bad for the human body? Why are certain people’s palates more tolerant than others’ when it comes to the flavours? And can too much heat in food potentially kill us?
What happens to your body when you eat spicy food?
We all know that burning feeling after eating a mouthful of cayenne. But where exactly does it come from?
“Spicy can mean a lot of things,” said Dr. Lisa Ganjhu, a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Health. “But the heat-like spice we’re talking about is specifically connected to capsaicin, a chemical compound that’s the active component of chile peppers and gives them that taste.”
A lot happens on a physiological level when we eat spicy foods: sweating, tingling of the lips and mouth, and a burning sensation on the tongue.
Interestingly enough, those reactions are actually our body’s way of cooling down after the capsaicin binds to nerve receptors in our stomach, sending a pain signal to the brain.
Some people may even experience reflux following the ingestion of spice.
“From a gastrointestinal perspective, the main thing we think about when discussing spicy food is reflux,” said Dr. Natasha Chhabra, a board-certified gastroenterologist. “Often, the recommendation to someone who notices spicy foods cause reflux or an increase in acid in their stomach is to limit ingestion of spicy foods.”
However, it’s important to remember that everyone is built differently and may experience a range of reactions to spicy food.
Asked why spice leads to reflux, Chhabra noted that, on a medical level, there haven’t been many studies about it.
“The exact mechanism as to why spicy foods can cause reflux is not well known,” she said. “There is some suggestion that the capsaicin may promote delayed emptying of your stomach so, conceptually, if the food stays in there longer, it can 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 very limited tolerance for it.
According to Chhabra, that tolerance depends on a number of factors, including genetic predisposition, life experience and exposure to the food.
“There is 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 this is the same concept. It’s genetic.”
That being said, Ganjhu says continuous exposure to the flavors may potentially increase one’s tolerance to spice. What that also means is that growing up eating the likes of hot peppers, Sichuan sauce and more may have actually contributed to some folks’ high tolerance for heat.
“Exposure profiles may be involved in the conversation,” Ganjhu said. “Someone may have lived in a house where more bland food was eaten and someone else had more spicy foods, so the tolerance developed over time. Sometimes, it is more of a cultural thing than a physiological one.”
Whatever the factors at play, it’s clear that there are different levels of spiciness that people can tolerate around the world, causing a variety of 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 might tolerate more than another; it’s not like alcohol where there is a recommended amount of it per day per person.”
There is, however, a way to measure the heat.
Legally, companies are not required to include spiciness levels on food labels (and, obviously, things like hot peppers and other produce don’t necessarily even come with labels), but there is a way to measure the amount of heat emitted by foods: the Scoville scale.
Recorded in Scoville heat units (SHU), the scale measures pungency based on the concentration of capsaicinoids (the “parent family” to capsaicin).
Bell peppers, for example, measure 0 Scoville heat units, whereas jalapeños land between the 2,500 and 10,000 ranking. Habanero chiles measure between 100,000 and 350,000 Scoville heat units, whereas Carolina reapers, a notoriously spicy chile pepper, are well above 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 could kill you, barring an allergic reaction or food sensitivity.
“I’ve never heard of spicy food killing someone,” Ganjhu noted before supposing that, perhaps, the severe stomach pain caused by the fare might potentially lead to catastrophic situations.
“When it comes to the One Chip challenge, you’re eating this chip that is extremely painful and your body is basically going into shock, as if it was stabbed, and your adrenaline shoots up,” she explained before clarifying that, despite these uncomfortable effects, actually dying from the ingestion of spicy food is far from likely.
How can you mellow the heat?
Although most people’s go-to reaction after eating spicy food is to grab some water, experts note that the very best way to get rid of too much heat is to drink or eat something full of fat that will help neutralise the feeling. 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 having a throat lozenge. “They increase saliva production, which helps neutralize the acidity in the stomach,” she said.