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Can the Hottest Peppers In the World Kill You? 337

Hugh Pickens writes "Katharine Gammon writes that last week, the Kismot Indian restaurant in Edinburgh, Scotland, held a competition to eat the extra-hot Kismot Killer curry and several ambulances were called after some of the competitive eaters were left writhing on the floor in agony, vomiting and fainting. Paul Bosland, professor of horticulture at New Mexico State University and director of the Chile Pepper Institute, says that chili peppers can indeed cause death — but most people's bodies would falter long before they reached that point. 'Theoretically, one could eat enough really hot chiles to kill you,' says Bosland adding that a research study in 1980 calculated that three pounds of the hottest peppers in the world — something like the Bhut Jolokia — eaten all at once could kill a 150-pound person. Chili peppers cause the eater's insides to rev up, activating the sympathetic nervous system — which helps control most of the body's internal organs — to expend more energy, so the body burns more calories when the same food is eaten with chili peppers. But tissue inflammation could explain why the contestants in the Killer Curry contest said they felt like chainsaws were ripping through their insides. As for the contest, restaurant owner Abdul Ali admitted the fiery dish may have been too spicy after the Scottish Ambulance Service warned him to review his event. 'I think we'll tone it down, but we'll definitely do it next year.'"
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Can the Hottest Peppers In the World Kill You?

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  • by davidwr ( 791652 ) on Monday October 17, 2011 @11:17AM (#37739470) Homepage Journal

    It may take more than 3 pounds, but if you drink enough water fast enough you get water toxicity.

    In other words, this is "not news."

  • LD50? (Score:5, Informative)

    by drosboro ( 1046516 ) on Monday October 17, 2011 @11:22AM (#37739552)

    According to it's MSDS, capsaicin has an LD50 (lethal dose to 50% of pop'n) of 47.2 mg/kg when taken orally. So, for a 70kg person, 3.2 grams of pure capsaicin should be lethal about 50% of the time... This isn't anything new, the data has been published for a long time.

  • by drainbramage ( 588291 ) on Monday October 17, 2011 @11:33AM (#37739712)

    Slowly saps your will to live.
    Or leaves horrible scars that you can pick at later.

  • by J'raxis ( 248192 ) on Monday October 17, 2011 @11:37AM (#37739784) Homepage

    In fairness, the article just says the Ambulance Service "warned" them. It doesn't say some sort of formal "warning" was issued under some authority, like the parent post implied; it could've just been the Ambulance Service captain saying "I think this is dangerous."

    There are plenty of real examples of Britain's insane nanny-statism without jumping to conclusions.

  • by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Monday October 17, 2011 @11:40AM (#37739848)

    Some people actually enjoy spicy food, it is not about toughness at all. Peppers will not eat a hole in your stomach, that is an old wives tale. Capsaicin just interacts with your sensory neurons and makes them respond as though they were being burned, no real damage is done.

  • by CrazyBusError ( 530694 ) on Monday October 17, 2011 @11:44AM (#37739908) Homepage
    Before anything else - this is my favourite local Indian Restaurant. Been eating there for a few years now and will continue to do so.

    Secondly, 'several ambulances'? People 'writhing on the floor, fainting and vomiting'? Here's what actually happened:

    Restaurant holds a curry-eating competition. Top of the list in the later rounds is the 'Kismot Killer', a curry that recently replaced a naga-based one, as too many people were finishing it easily. Anyway, if you order a killer, the restaurant staff will do everything in their power to put you off - there's warnings all over the place and you have to sign a disclaimer before eating it. If you *really* insist on eating the damn thing, you can't say you weren't warned. But anyway. So two people get to the later stages (one American, FWIW) and one of them has the bright idea of vomiting immediately after eating so as to avoid the after-effects. The other continues eating *despite being in pain and feeling faint*. I mean, seriously? So despite having the red cross present (it was a charity event), they got an ambulance to take these two to hospital for safety. The hospital gave them strong anti-indigestion medication and kicked them out.

    Short version - idiots did idiotic things, complained that they shouldn't have to have any personal responsibility when the inevitable happened.
  • Re:I'd believe it... (Score:5, Informative)

    by JohnBailey ( 1092697 ) on Monday October 17, 2011 @11:54AM (#37740066)

    It's always been a mystery to me why I can eat and enjoy something so toxic that I have to wear rubber gloves to prepare them.

    Mystery solved.
    The chemical that causes the heat sensation also triggers endorphins. So pleasure is experienced.

    Toxic?.. Not sure about that. Irritant definitely. The juice on your fingers can lead to unpleasant side effects, depending where you touch.. But hardly deadly, unless you are eating some kind of concentrated industrial strength chilli. And realistically.. The super hot chills are not really intended for direct human consumption.

  • by sapgau ( 413511 ) on Monday October 17, 2011 @11:57AM (#37740110) Journal

    I don't know about Indian cuisine but in Mexico we don't brag about how impossibly hot a dish is.
    Chile is used as an additional condiment and is never the main focus of the meal... Mexicans know when something needs to be spiced up to make it taste better, enough to make you salivate just by smelling it and make it perfect. That hot spicy sensation is addictive and a good source of endorphins... It is never a goal to make it impossible to swallow, give you cramps and make you faint.

    Pinches gringos locos....

  • by Stele ( 9443 ) on Monday October 17, 2011 @12:16PM (#37740404) Homepage

    Hmm - I think you're "eating" them wrong.

  • Re:LD50? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Insightfill ( 554828 ) on Monday October 17, 2011 @12:28PM (#37740580) Homepage

    I believe the hotness in black pepper is different, but it's not a pepper at all. Nearly all other food hotness (unless you count horse radish) is going to be solanaceae, and therefore capsaicin.

    Correct - black pepper relies on "piperine" which is partially soluble in water (more-so in alcohol). Quick drink of water and you're fine. Horseradish and mustard rely on yet another chemical, but still water soluble.

    Capsaicin, OTOH, is fat-soluble. It usually takes an oil-heavy food or drink to take away some of the heat. Many people recommend milk, but I've found that cheese works better.

  • Re:LD50? (Score:5, Informative)

    by julesh ( 229690 ) on Monday October 17, 2011 @12:43PM (#37740818)

    No. The Scoville scale is not linear because it's based solely on human senses (which tend to be logarithmic).

    So Bhut Jolokia may have 1/16th the Scoville Units but that does not necessarily translate to 1/16th the capsaicin content.

    Actually, the Scoville scale is linear, because it is based on amount of dilution required before the flavour is not detectable (which removes the nonlinearity of human sensation).

    1ppm capsaicin = 1 ASTA pungency unit. The conversion from there to Scovilles is explained in TFA, if you actually bothered reading it, but it *is* linear.

  • Re:Bullshit (Score:4, Informative)

    by mikael ( 484 ) on Monday October 17, 2011 @12:50PM (#37740910)

    There's a scientific scale to measure the strength of Chili peppers - the Scoville scale []

    The average chili pepper from the supermarket isn't going to do much. You have to specially order the extra spicy ones like the Naga Viper pepper, Infinity Chili or Bhut Jolokai chili pepper, Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper.

  • by asliarun ( 636603 ) on Monday October 17, 2011 @01:05PM (#37741102)

    I don't know about Indian cuisine but in Mexico we don't brag about how impossibly hot a dish is.
    Chile is used as an additional condiment and is never the main focus of the meal... Mexicans know when something needs to be spiced up to make it taste better, enough to make you salivate just by smelling it and make it perfect. That hot spicy sensation is addictive and a good source of endorphins... It is never a goal to make it impossible to swallow, give you cramps and make you faint.

    Pinches gringos locos....

    Indians don't brag about the heat levels of their food as well. I would like to dispel some myths about Indian food here:

    - Firstly, there is nothing called Indian food. India is an agglomeration of about 50-100 or so cultures, a bit like Europe. Each culture has its own history, language or dialect, culture, and most importantly, food. While culture has changed or diluted over time, food habits have not changed much. Anyone who talks about "Indian curry" is as incorrect as someone who talks about "European soup".

    - Indian food by and large is not super-spicy to begin with. Home cooked food in India is usually mild and often a bit overcooked. Yes, certain cuisines such as Kolhapuri or Sahuji is known for being hotter. Even then, this is usually hype promoted by restaurants as a publicity stunt. While restaurants often label their dish "kolhapuri chicken" by adding 5 extra red chiles, authentic Kolhapuri food is not cooked this way

    - Indian food, unlike many other cuisines, is very flavorful and aromatic and a typical dish will consist of numerous spices and herbs. Perhaps, this is because India is the birthplace of most herbs and spices (maybe not most, South America kicks ass too). Indian flavor is usually multi-dimensional and layered - heat is just one component. A really well made Indian dish (such as a "curry") will usually be hot, sour, salty, and a bit sweet at the same time. Mostly not bitter, but sometimes bitter too, especially in dishes such as bitter gourd curry. Bottom-line - spicy does not mean hot, it means full of spice, and each spice has a different flavor and aroma. This is the whole point of mixing multiple spices, or using pre-mixed spices ("garam masala", "panch phoran", etc.)

    - Chile is also often an extra condiment in Indian cuisine as well - a typical Indian dish will consist of plain rice or wheat bread with a somewhat mild curry, a slightly spicier dry vegetable or meat, salad ("kachumbar") or yogurt based sauce to provide relief for the spice ("raita"). It is also usually accompanied by one or more chutneys that can range from fiery hot to minty cool, and by one or more pickles again ranging from fiery hot to sweet and tangy. The chutneys and pickles are meant to provide additional heat for people who like more heat in their food. There are several dozens, even hundreds, of pickles and chutneys. Note that Indian pickles are much more complex and flavourful compared to pickle popular in many other parts which is usually made with vegetables preserved in vinegar and salt. Indian pickles are usually pickled in a variety of oils.

    - This whole thing of eating really hot food is really just a sport, the need for some people to turn anything into a competitive sport. Then, there are hotels like this one cashing in on this whole thing to get more publicity.

    - With all due respect, Mexican food is delicious and very fresh and complex, but you cannot compare it with a country where you have hundreds of parallel food cultures all running back several thousands of years. You can probably compare Mexico to a specific Indian state, but that's about it. Comparing India to South America would be more accurate.

    Before this becomes a flame war, please note: I'm not trying to put down down Mexico or say that India is better or worse. Just saying that the complexity of Mexican culture and food is comparable to the complexity of the culture and food of an Indian state - in terms of population, size, history, and complexity

  • by rssrss ( 686344 ) on Monday October 17, 2011 @01:48PM (#37741738)

    Not if you are eating the peppers in curry. Curry has lots of salt. Water kills by draining the sodium out of your body.

    However, if you are having chili mouth problems, the antidote is fat not water. Capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili is an oil. Eat butter, drink oil, a high butterfat ice cream might work also.

  • Re:I'd believe it... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Monday October 17, 2011 @02:04PM (#37741932) Journal

    Toxic?.. Not sure about that.

    Capsaicin is in fact a neurotoxin. Prolonged exposure to it leads to excessive Ca++ influx, and excitoxicity. Of couse, we're talking about capsaicin applied directly to neurons in a dish here, how physiologically relevant this is is debatable.

The unfacts, did we have them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude.