What kind of health danger could a person experience from eating hot sauce?

Hey, Matt:

A friend of mine told me a story about her boss, who was on a business trip to Chicago. One night he was in a restaurant that had on the menu something called Da' Bomb. It was billed as the hottest hot sauce there is. He loves hot food, so he decided to order some. According to my friend, at first the waiter tried to discourage him from trying it. Eventually, they made him sign a waiver of some kind before they would let him taste it. They gave him a tiny speck of it on the end of a toothpick, and it was so hot, he spent the rest of the night crying. This waiver sounded like marketing hype to me, but it got us to thinking, what kind of health danger could a person experience from eating hot sauce? Has there ever been a death by salsa?

-- Cap Saicin, El Cajon

To answer this one, we entered the weird world of the hard-core chilieheads. They're into X-treme eating. They scorn the bland Tabasco. Jalapeños are for invalids and babies. Ready for any emergency, they carry a personal stash of specialty brands: Armageddon, Spontaneous Combustion, Acid Rain, Possible Side Effects, Brain Damage, or Great Bowels of Fire. There are more than 1500 commercial pepper sauces with names like these, including Da' Bomb, one of the most sadistic on the market.

Many of the hottest require that you sign a waiver before you buy or try them. Yes, it's hype, but it also impresses on any macho thrill-seekers the idea that these are seriously volcanic substances. Pepper hotness is rated in Scoville units, a measure of the capsaicin (hotness alkaloid) content. A green bell pepper rates a zero; pure capsaicin, 16 million. In between are Anaheims at 1000; jalapeños at 5000; Tabasco at 50,000; Thai chiles at 100,000; and habaneros and their Caribbean cousins at 300,000. The hottest hot sauces claim 1.5 million Scoville. They're made from distilled habaneros.

Capsaicin alkaloids are designed to latch onto nerve endings that detect pain caused by heat. (Some of the alkaloids cause short, jolting pain, others are responsible for the delayed long burn.) Scientists have shown that your neurologic response will be the same if you stick your hand in flames or bite into an habanero. Capsaicin is the plant's natural defense system, to teach animals not to eat them. But of course, we're smarter than plants. We'll pay up to $40 a bottle (1.75 ounces) for a 1.5 million-Scoville pepper sauce.

So what do you get for your money? Hyperstimulated pain receptors and gustatory nerve endings. The pain response can cause a temporarily irregular heartbeat and breathing. It also sends your body temperature down and dulls your sensitivity to changes in air temperature. Your digestion speeds up, and fat absorption is blocked. Jangling gustatory nerves cause sweating around the head and face and a runny nose and watery eyes. Unless you're in very delicate health, none of this should kill you, although with Da' Bomb, death might seem like a reasonable option.

But wait. There's an up side to all this. Chiles have long been added to arthritis salves as a counterirritant to dull the pain. And it's not been proven, but professors of chileology believe one effect of assaulted pain receptors is a release of endorphins, nature's natural calmer. The endorphins act as a buffer between the pain and the brain and send us into a sort of dreamy state. They also cause tense muscles to relax. Scientists speculate that herein lies the "addictive" nature of spicy things. Chileheads crave the thrill of the pain jolt, followed by the euphoria.

Death by salsa is highly unlikely. The only reference we could find to a potentially life-threatening situation is a letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association from two doctors who treated a patient who had a perforated small intestine. He had recently won a chile-eating contest -- 25 Thai chiles in 12 minutes. The doctors speculated about some connection, although several studies have indicated that chiles don't create holes in mucous membrane, it only feels that way.

Chile Papers

Hot off the press, more poop about peppers. In re: chiles’ medicinal powers comes a startling story from Victor Ortega of Serra Mesa, who spent part of his youth during World War II hiding from Japanese soldiers in a cave in the Philippines. Unfortunately, Mom contracted bronchial pneumonia…

"As we were far from any doctor or for that matter from civilization, my mother asked me to make a poultice out of ground Labuyo pepper. This variety are the small but very hot ones that are found in almost every back yard in that country, and I applied it to her back. Even in the dark candlelight inside the cave, I could see my mother writhing in pain but somehow grimly and determinedly holding on. She was profusely sweating and delirious. But when morning came, the fever was gone. She had recovered from her illness, but she had a badly blistered back where the skin peeled off when I took off the poultice. I applied the creamy substance found with the meat of a coconut seedling for about a week. The wound healed, leaving just a slight discoloration on the skin where the poultice was applied."

Chileologists claim coconut (along with milk and yogurt) is the best antidote for a screaming pepper attack. Glad to see the science guys have given the official stamp of approval to something everybody else has known all along. The Philippine Labuyo is almost as hot as the Mexican habanero, which, until last week, would have ranked it near the top on the worldwide hotness scale. But if you haven’t been too distracted concocting that plan for getting into Street Scene for free, you’ve probably heard the gut-raking news. As of September first, the habanero is no longer the hottest chile in the world. Sorry, Mexico. Northeast India grows something called a Tezpur chile that has tested (by liquid chromatography) at 855,000 Scoville units of hotness. Habaneros generate about 300,000 to 500,000. (For comparison, the familiar fresh jalapeño is a paltry 5000.) Tezpurs are pretty much inedible except by those few people who’ve grown up eating them. The scientists plan to use the Tezpur as an ingredient in tear-gas grenades. Ah, peppers. As versatile as the common potato. A food, a weapon. Who could ask for more?

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