Lethally Spicy Carolina Reapers? Pepper Lovers Push Back

After a hot pepper made headlines for hospitalizing a man, growers defend their fruit.

By Ethan L. Johns
April 16, 2018

Image: Louis Larrain/Getty Images

When you eat the world’s spiciest pepper, you might feel like you’re being incinerated from the inside out. Yet you can be relatively certain that the thing won’t kill you. Or will it?

A medical case study from BMJ Case Reports made waves last week when it was revealed that a 34-year-old man was hospitalized after eating a Carolina Reaper pepper, which currently holds the Guinness World Record for being the world’s spiciest pepper. Now, pepper producers and chili chauvinists are fighting back.

After eating a Carolina Reaper for a competition near Cooperstown, N.Y., the man in question immediately felt what doctors later classified as a “thunderclap headache.” An excruciating pain shot up his neck and into his head. Though it subsided, the ten-out-of-ten-scale pain returned again over the following days, so he went to the hospital.

Doctors concluded that the man had a special sensitivity to capsaicin, and that the headaches were chili-induced (Carolina Reapers have a heat score of over 2 million Scoville Heat Units; for reference, a spicy jalapeño has a score of around 2,000 to 5,000 SHUs). The peppers caused a constriction of the main arteries in the man’s brain, which resulted in temporary yet excruciating headaches—pain which could indicate strokes or cerebral bleeding.

But should one man’s reaction be enough to extinguish the world’s burning passion for hellishly spicy peppers?

David Dodick, chairman of the American Migraine Foundation, questioned the entire conclusion of capsaicin’s culpability, pointing out to the Washington Post that the compound causes blood vessels to dilate, not constrict.

British farmer Salvatore Genovese told Britain’s Sky News that even after growing half a million reapers, he had never received any complaints, nor heard of any injury caused by the peppers. He suggested that the pepper should be used as a seasoning, like salt, rather than as a tasty snack.

And, naturally, Carolina Reaper creator Ed Currie told the New York Times that he eats the peppers “all the time” (yet called people who did so “stupid”) and never has side effects like the ones described in the case study. His company, PuckerButt Pepper Company, is currently working on a new hybrid pepper which lands a scorching 3.189 million SHUs—a solid 50 percent spicier than the Carolina Reaper, according to the Washington Post. Even that, apparently, doesn’t cause death by internal incineration.

Does this pepper propaganda set your mind at ease? If you’re crazy enough to eat a raw Reaper, odds are it never really mattered in the first place.

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About Ethan L. Johns

Ethan is the Food News Writer at Genius Kitchen. An expert on the Parisian bistrot, he likes bitters and salted butters, and is no fan of dessert unless it's made with fruit. His hobbies include reading up on the history of borscht and attempting to roll perfect couscous by hand. Twits & Instagram @EthanLJohns