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How Spicy is Too Spicy?

VO: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: George Pacheco
For some of us, the spicier the food the better. But is there an upper limit to what the human body can withstand in terms of spiciness? From the hottest of hot chilis to the spiciest of spicy curries, our menus are full of rich flavours. But are some of them just too much to handle?
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How Spicy is Too Spicy?


Move over, sweet vs. salty popcorn. Settle down, pineapple on pizza. It's time to discuss one of the most hotly debated food-related arguments of all time: how spicy is too spicy?

Well, for some, there seems no amount of heat and spice to quench the need for a culinary extreme. These daring folk appear always on the lookout for their next fiery fix, born to consume as much hot food as they can, without any care for the supposed consequences. On the other hand, there are those who choose to take a walk on the mild side, sidestepping the tangy salsa for some smooth sour cream.

Scientifically speaking, there are actual reasons why we gravitate towards different ends of the spicy scale. And there are even reasons for why we sometimes choose to consume ultra-hot food that can ultimately cause us discomfort. And most of it’s in the mind. For starters, there's a certain thrilling aspect attached to doing something that so many others are so scared to attempt. That good feeling we have after surviving an especially spicy meal could be compared to something like a "runner's high”, an endorphin rush which gives us an internal vibe of heat-induced happiness.

The desire for spicy foods isn't something we're born with, however, but rather something which can be built through exposure and tolerance. Importantly, the eating of spicy food doesn’t usually cause actual harm – it just feels like it does. The endorphin rush we feel is transmitted to our brains as something called ‘Substance P’. Substance P stimulates our pain receptors, triggering those oddly euphoric feelings while at the same time hoaxing our bodies into believing that something is wrong. Over time and with practice, though, we become more attuned and tolerant when rolling the spice dice. Which explains why those reared on hot food from a young age – or those who live in countries where spicy cuisine is common – can comfortably withstand the heat compared to someone experiencing it later in life.

The actual amount of heat present within food can also be measured in what's known as Scoville Units. These units indicate how much capsaicin is in any given product or meal, which directly affects how hot and spicy it is, or how pungent (and painful) it is to eat. Capsaicin is a compound found in chili peppers, and is officially recognized as an irritant to humans – causing a burning sensation on anything it touches, not least the inside of our mouths. Away from food, it’s more than just a taste-enhancing bi-product, and can actually be considered as an evolutionary form of weaponization against predators. According to some, the kick of capsaicin may serve to prevent certain peppers from being eaten in the wild, but it doesn't seem to deter us humans from taking our chances on a spicy meal. One glance at the hundreds of spicy-food themed contests around the world can confirm that.

So, eating a lot of spicy foods is a good thing, right? Well, yes, but also no. Although there have been studies linking steady diets of hot food with weight loss, longevity, and joint health, this doesn't mean that you should start downing Ghost Peppers or Carolina Reapers if you're not used to having them in your diet. In fact, in 2016 the Journal of Emergency Medicine reported that someone had ‘burned a hole’ in their esophagus after eating Ghost Peppers. While this particular injury is exceptionally rare – and may be linked to the tissue inflammation that spicy food can cause – the patient’s other complaints of chest pain, abdominal discomfort and vomiting are fairly common.

Yet, there are also those who claim that even the hottest foods pose no real dangers to anyone with a reasonably healthy digestive system – and if eaten in moderation. Paul Bosland of the Chile Pepper Institute in New Mexico told LiveScience.com that the body itself should actually react to and reject the amount of hot peppers required to be lethal long before it actually succumbs. The potential is there, though, as Bosland also concedes that eating three pounds of powdered chilies could theoretically kill a 150-pound person – if it was consumed in one sitting.

Things rarely get to that point, though, as our bodies have all kinds of defense mechanisms to use against the perceived (though not usually real) danger. If the spiciness proves too intense, daring diners might faint or experience heartburn as part of the shock – but only in the worst-case scenario might they encounter full-blown heart attack symptoms. If your body really doesn’t like something, it will usually find some way of extracting it before those extremes are reached – did someone say, “sick bucket”? Of course, potential allergic reactions are another matter, and issues like dehydration or overeating do carry their own threats. But a food is very rarely fatal because of spiciness alone. And the general consensus is that as much as a meal might make you feel like you’re going to die, you aren’t likely to.

Don’t forget, though, that even handling an exceptionally hot food carries some risk. Take "Hunan Hand Syndrome", or as it’s more commonly known, "chili burn". This nasty skin reaction can flare up after simply peeling the hottest of hot peppers without donning the proper gloves or hand protection. In other words, don't chop chilis without suiting up first. And definitely, under no circumstances, touch your eyes. Depending on the Scoville count, it takes more than a few splashes of water to ease that pain!

Altogether, the enjoyment of hot and spicy foods largely comes down to our personal preference. Hot food addicts usually know exactly how spicy is too spicy for them, but they may also be the determined daredevils more likely to try and ‘beat their personal best’ by chomping a chili too many… Meanwhile, if you don’t regularly eat spicy food, but would like to try, then take it easy to start with. With spice, it’s best not to run before you can walk – or else you just might be limping to the hospital. The average person on an everyday diet is likely safe from the extremes, though.

So, if you were worried about dying from an overdose of hot sauce, or incurring lasting damage over a second helping of Sichuan Chicken, then the good news is that you're probably in the clear, so enjoy!
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