Not all peppers hurt the same way. Some attack with quick, sharp barbs of heat on the front of your tongue, while others bathe the back of your throat in a soft warmth. The hurt from the Carolina reaper, the world’s hottest chile pepper, is its own brand of evil: The pepper’s heat starts as a moderate burn, restraining itself just enough to lull you into a false sense of security. Then it builds, slowly, like a fire working its way through an apartment building floor by floor until your face is ablaze with pain. Videos on YouTube show people puking and crying. The snack company Paqui sells a Carolina Reaper tortilla chip that comes with literally one chip in each package. That’s all anybody can handle.
But don’t feel sorry for those who eat the cursed pepper. They know exactly what they’re getting into — they should, anyway. The reaper’s tendency to inflict pain is well publicized. It holds the world’s hottest pepper distinction from Guinness and clocks in at more than 1.5 million Scoville heat units, which is what researchers use to quantify a food’s firepower. That makes it about 300 times spicier than even the most intense jalapeño.
Nature alone couldn’t even create something so painful: The pepper’s actual creator is a South Carolina man who learned to crossbreed plants while growing pot in college. Once he graduated from weed, he moved on to chilies. His interest, or so he claims, was in the fruit’s cancer-fighting, heart-protecting benefits. Noble, perhaps. But make no mistake: The Carolina reaper is pure pain. I know because I ate one.
Based on my experience and what the research says about the body’s biological response to capsaicin — the primary source of heat in peppers — here’s what you can expect to happen after you pop a reaper into your mouth like I did.
How the Body Reacts to Eating a Carolina Reaper
The first bite is sweet, floral, and innocent. It’s a big bad wolf in grandma’s clothing. But as your teeth tear through pulp, they expose the membrane that holds bulk of the pepper’s capsaicinoids, defensive alkaloids the pepper uses for self-preservation. Those Capsaicinoids, the most common of which is capsaicin, evolved to cause pain. And they work very well. Paul Bosland, Ph.D, director of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University explains, “Peppers don’t want mice or squirrels eating the fruit, because it destroys the seeds.”
You begin to feel the burn. The reason: As capsaicin spreads through your mouth, it binds to TRPV1 receptors, which your body uses to detect heat. These receptors are typically activated by temperatures in excess of about 110°F, but once the capsaicin latches on, the activation temperature drops to about 93°F, says Nadia Byrnes, Ph.D. That’s lower than your natural body temperature. “Now the warmth of your own mouth trips the receptor and creates a burning sensation,” she says. Substance P, a neuropeptide that signals pain, travels to your brain, unleashing a cascade of defensive biological reactions.
When you swallow, you send the chewed-up pepper to the back of your throat, down through your esophagus, and into your stomach. And bad news: all of these organs contain their own TRPV1 pain receptors, which latch on to capsaicins still in the pepper. Shortly after, you feel the burn in places you may be unaccustomed to. “This is part of the reason the pepper is perceived as being so hot,” says Bosland. “It’s a delayed heat that lingers, and it’s felt particularly strongly in the back of the throat.” As for the sensation in your stomach: “It’s like feeling warm tea as it hits your stomach,” he says. Only in my experience, it’s far less pleasant.
You may feel your throat begin to tighten. I did. Around this time, your stimulated TRPV1 receptors mobilize a protein called aquaporin 5, which ramps up saliva production. Ostensibly this is to flush out pain-causing compounds, and it leaves you slurping your own spit as you suck in cool air to fan your burning tongue.
Your forehead, cheeks, and neck begin sweating. This is gustatory sweating, which is related specifically to food consumption. Interestingly, capsaicins also boost your metabolism. The more it hurts, the more energy your body consumes. “It would take a lot of chiles to make a significant impact,” says Bosland. “But the spice does burn off some extra calories.”
If you’re like me, the pain is unmanageable and you reach for something to drink. Hopefully that something is milk, yogurt, or another dairy product. Water will just make things worse because instead of binding to the heat-causing molecules, they just move them around. “Milk has a protein called casein that knocks the capsaicinoid off of the receptor,” says Bosland. He recommends non-fat milk, because of its higher protein to fat percentage.
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Your nose begins to run, yet another result of TRPV1 capsaicin stimulation. This is annoying, but you might welcome it at times when you’re feeling congested. In one study, researchers at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine found that using a capsaicin nasal spray could provide relief from congestion in less than a minute, on average.
You’ve now entered peak pain. This will last for about four or five minutes.
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You may feel lightheaded from the endorphin rush. “You’ve kind of hurt yourself, and your body is trying to block the pain,” says Bosland. I felt this intensely: My face and nose began tingling, and there were a solid 30 seconds where I legitimately thought I would pass out.
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The receptors in your esophagus are likely reporting something that feels like heartburn. Really, it’s just the burn of the capsaicins.
You’re through the worst of the pain. But your mouth feels singed, like you just ate pizza that was way too hot. And your sweat and mucus glands, stimulated as they are, are still wet and oozy.
At this point, the heatwave is over. You’ve survived. But your body is still unsure of the reaper in your belly. In my case, I had some pretty intense stomach cramping about two hours later, and then again another hour after that.
So was it worth it? Nope, not for me. But maybe I’m just not man enough: Researchers in France found that people with higher testosterone levels had a stronger preference for spicy foods. So hey, maybe you’re a T-filled pain enthusiast who will actually enjoy eating the world’s spiciest pepper. I don’t recommend it, but if you’re really curious, you can buy the peppers on Amazon.