Louisiana pepper breeder/grower Tony Primeaux handles some hot ones. (Photo: Lee Celano/The Daily Advertiser via AP)
A 47-year-old man recently attempted a rather silly, super-spicy feat – eating a hamburger covered with a ghost pepper puree. The ghost pepper measures a scary 1 million units on the Scoville heat unit (SHU) scale, a per-mass measure of capsaicin, the chemical compound that makes some peppers spicy-hot.
By way of comparison, a bell pepper measures 0 on that scale. A jalapeno comes in at between 3,500-10,000 units; a Serrano and a Peperoncino score in the range of 10,000-30,000 units, and both Cayenne and Tabasco peppers range from 30,000-50,000 units – about as high as most people care to experience.
(Police pepper spray, by the way, comes it at around 5 million SHU.)
(I thought my mouth was on fire once when I took a bite out of an Habanero, AKA Scotch Bonnet chili – 100,000 -350,000 heat units – I’d found on sale at a London street market. I’d been told, simply, “It’s a hot pepper.” I said, “Oh, I love hot peppers.” This one was not to love!
(As quickly as I could, I went into a pub and ordered a pint of beer, as beer is rumored to cut the effect of heat in food, or peppers. Alternatively, the beer may just make you forget about the pepper’s burning sensation!)
An article in The Washington Post said that peppers that pass the 1 million SHU mark are called superhot. “As a rule they are reddish and puckered, as though one of Satan’s internal organs had prolapsed. To daredevil eaters of a certain stripe, the superhot peppers exist only to challenge.
“When consumed, ghost peppers and other superhots provoke extreme reactions,” The Post article said.
“Your body thinks it’s going to die,” as Louisiana pepper grower Ronald (Tony) Primeaux told the AP in October. “You’re not going to die.”
The Washington Post’s Tim Carman described eating a pea-sized chunk of the pepper, sans seeds, in 2012. “It was as if my head had become a wood-burning oven, lighting up my tongue and the interior of my skull,” he wrote. “Milk provided little relief, until the burn began to subside on its own about 10 minutes later.”
Primeaux, who hopes to claim the world’s hottest pepper title through cultivating his Louisiana Creeper variety, said, “When you put one of these in your mouth, it’s a whole ‘nother ballgame,” in his interview with the AP. “A bear is chasing you. You’ve just been in a car wreck. You just got caught speeding, and a cop is giving you a ticket.”
Pepper breeder/grower Tony Primeaux with some of his plants. (Photo: Lee Celano/The Daily Advertiser via AP)
That truly seemed to be the sensation experienced by the unnamed 47-year-old reported on in The Journal of Emergency Medicine. For him, “ingesting the pepper burger was less a bear chase and closer to an attack,” The Post article said.
As physicians at the University of California at San Francisco reported in the case study reported on in The Journal of Emergency Medicine article, he consumed the burger and attempted to quench the heat in his mouth with six glasses of water. When that failed the man began to vomit, which gave way to abdominal pain. He dialed emergency help.
At the emergency department, he received Maalox and painkillers. After his condition worsened, doctors moved him to the operating room, where they discovered a “2.5-cm tear in the distal esophagus,” about one inch, as the case report authors noted. The force of the vomiting and retching led to a rare diagnosis of Boerhaave’s syndrome; these spontaneous tears in the esophagus can be fatal if they are not diagnosed and treated.
“The rupture was as a result of the forceful vomiting and retching,” said UC San Francisco clinical fellow and study author Ann Arens, in an email to The Washington Post, “as a result of eating the hamburger with the ghost pepper puree.”
In this case, surgeons were able to repair the man’s throat. “He remained intubated until hospital day 14, began tolerating liquids on hospital day 17,” they wrote, “and was discharged home with a gastric tube in place on hospital day 23.”
The researchers concluded the case study with a warning.
“Food challenges have become common among social media, including the infamous cinnamon challenge,” they wrote, referencing the spice fad that was popular in early 2012. (When eating a heaping spoonful of cinnamon went wrong, it led to emergency calls and at least one collapsed lung.)
“When people ask me whether it is safe to try the ‘spicy food challenges’ I generally take a Nancy Reagan stance,” said Arens, “and say ‘Just Say No.’ But if you really just can’t help yourself, I would recommend just starting with a taste.”