Chiliheads and the capsaicin craving

Craig and Patsy Ryan

Cultures all over the world enjoy spicy food from the Chicken Naga curry of India to Camarones a la Diabla of Mexico as do many Southeast Texans — be it Cajun, Tex-Mex, or their family’s secret chili recipe. These dishes usually have one thing in common: chili peppers. But what is it that gives a pepper its heat, and why do people keep coming back for more despite the pain they endure during and after ingestion?

Although Chicken Naga and Camarones a la Diabla contain different peppers — one contains the naga viper pepper and the other contains the habanero — the peppers in both dishes contain a common chemical that gives each its spicy kick.

“The active chemical in a pepper plant that gives the plant its spike or its heat is called capsaicin,” said Dr. Robert Corbett, coordinator of laboratory instruction at Lamar University’s department of biology. “It’s predominantly in the seeds and the placenta of the pepper which is the little, white midribs that you see in the pepper, where the seeds are attached.”

It is the amount of capasicin that determines how much heat a dish will deal its consumer, Corbett said, heat that is measured by the Scoville Scale. The scale was named after American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville, whose method, the Scoville Organoleptic Test, revolutionized the measurement of capsaicin in 1912.

“The lower the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU), the less hot the pepper is,” Corbett said. “The higher the Scoville Heat Unit, the hotter the pepper is and the more capsaicin it has in it. It’s directly related to capsaicin.”

The jalapeño pepper, a pepper found in many popular Tex-Mex foods only contains a maximum of 8,000 SHU versus the Naga Viper, used in some curry dishes, which contains 1.38 milllion SHU. The amount of capsaicin used in law enforcement-grade pepper spray is usually above 2 million SHU, and pure capsaicin registers 16 million.

“The pepper sprays that police officers use actually has capsaicin in it … extracted out of hot chili peppers,” Corbett said. “To get a better yield of capsaicin when they do the extraction processes, they are going to be using hotter peppers like habanero peppers.”

The body’s reaction to capsaicin is also responsible for the pain a hot pepper can cause its consumer.

According to “Feel the Burn,” an article in American Scientist — a bi-monthly magazine published by Cornell University — in 1997, a University of California-San Francisco scientist reported the discovery of the cellular receptor responsible for the “heat” in jalapeños, habaneros and other hot peppers. The capsaicin receptor is a protein channel that sits in the outer membrane of specific nerve cells and allows a flood of calcium ions to enter a human’s cells when capsaicin is present. The characteristic burning sensation people experience when they bite into a hot pepper comes from the excitation of these cells, the article states.

So why do people keep coming back for more?

“It’s kind of like eating chocolate,” Corbett said. “It boosts the metabolism and releases endorphins (a group of hormones secreted within the brain and nervous system). It gives you that happy feeling if you can get past the initial pain from the burn.”

Many are not only willing to withstand the pain to get that pepper high, but also actively seek the heat. These folks, called chiliheads, search the Web for companies that can satisfy their craving, companies like Pucker Butt Pepper Company, developer of the world’s current hottest pepper — Smokin’ Ed’s Carolina Reaper, a super hot pepper grown by Ed Currie, founder and president of the company, in his Rock Hill, S.C. greenhouse.  Measuring over 1.5 million on the Scoville Scale, Smokin' Ed's Carolina Reaper was awarded the Guinness World Record in November 2013.

In fact, becoming the next leader on the Scoville Scale, has become a competition for companies like Pucker Butt Pepper Company, said Craig Ryan, owner of The Nut Shack, a mobile shop owned by Craig and his wife Patsy. The two travel all over the United States selling nuts, peppers and hot sauces at U.S. military bases and fairs. They recently set up shop at the Ford Park Exhibit Hall during the South Texas State Fair.

“There are people that work year-round to make a hotter pepper. Nobody wants to be second,” Craig said. “The Carolina Reaper is a cross-pollination between two or three different peppers.”

Cross-pollination is the transfer of pollen from the flower of one plant to the flower of a plant having a different genetic constitution, Corbett said.

“It’s just common breeding practices, cross-pollination,” he said. “A hot pepper can cross-pollinate with a less hot pepper and you’ll get something in between. I made the mistake once of growing habaneros next to my bell peppers and my bell peppers ended up being pretty hot because the habaneros actually pollinated my bell pepper plants.”

Cross-breeding peppers to meet the needs of chiliheads has resulted in a myriad of new sauces and extracts on the market. The Nut Shack sells many of these sauces, which each have their own decorative bottle and catchy name, some of which include: Magma Hot Sauce, a 1-million-SHU vinegary sauce that comes in a transparent bottle — the capsaicin settles at the top, and when turned upside down, the bottle resembles a lava lamp; Widow Hot Sauce-No Survivors, 90,000 SHU of bite, with soy sauce and Worcestershire ingredients and the infamous black widow spider on the label; Blair’s Pure Death Sauce, containing both ghost chilies and habaneros — the name of this 35,000-SHU strong sauce says it all.  

Craig and Patsy’s shop also sells capsaicin extracts like Blair's 5 a.m. Reserve Extract, an extract measuring 5.5 Million to 6 Million SHU (1100 times hotter than a jalapeño!). The extract is autographed by Blair Lazar, a New Jersey entrepreneur who achieved a Guinness World Record of 16 million SHU — the scientific maximum with his 16 million Reserve. It consists of individual crystals of pure capsaicin produced in a laboratory and retails anywhere from $2000-$3000.

Many of the sauces Craig sells even come with a warning label that reads, “Should be used with caution and handled with care! Purchaser of this product hereby acknowledges the intense heat factor of this product and the element of danger if misused.  We recommend not using this product near or around small children or pets.”

Corbett issues similar warnings to his Lamar students when handling and sampling hot peppers in his “pepper lab.” The lab session is part of his botany class at Lamar, where Corbett lines up peppers from Bells to ghost chili and allows his students to sample each or all as they learn about the Scoville Scale and what gives a pepper its heat.

“The first semester I cut up these peppers, I didn’t wear gloves. From handling the habanero peppers and especially the ghost chilies, it actually caused the skin on the end of my fingers to peel. It was extremely painful,” Corbett said. “As part of (the students’) pepper tasting, I make them use toothpicks rather than pick it up with their hands because they could make the mistake of forgetting to wash their hands and rubbing their eyes … or touching their nose, or heaven forbid going to the restroom … and touching very sensitive body parts.”

Students have to sign a waiver before sampling around six different peppers beginning with the Bell pepper, which contains less than 1 SHU, and ending with the ghost chili. The waiver excludes Corbett or Lamar from being held responsible for the repercussions that may occur afterwards which, according to the waiver, may include “burning of the lips, tongue and digestive tract and the blistering of body parts coming into contact with hot chili peppers.”

Similar to Corbett, Craig allows sampling of peppers at The Nut Shack through a challenge he likes to issue his customers — to eat a whole ghost chili pepper, which clocks in at over 1 million SHU.

Why would anyone accept such a challenge?

 Both Corbett and Craig agree that chiliheads like to compete with one another to see who can handle more heat.

“It’s like a macho complex,” Corbett said. “They thump their chests and say I can eat a hotter pepper than you. I’ve seen some people, their face is red, their eyes are watering, their nose is watering, and their lips are starting to swell up, but they say, ‘Oh yeah, this is not bad at all’ even though you can tell they are in physical pain.”

Rodney Brannan, a 16-year-old Hamshire-Fannett High School junior, accepted The Nut Shack challenge of eating a whole ghost chili April 5, at the South Texas State Fair.

“I haven’t had a whole (ghost chili) pepper yet,” Brannan said. “I just wanted to try it.”

The only stipulation, Craig said, was that Brannan had to get permission from his grandfather, Skip Vribes, who agreed to let his son try the infamous pepper.

The heat of the ghost chili didn’t seem to immediately affect Brannan nor 21-year-old Lamar student Edward Silva, of Kirbyville, who tried the whole line of peppers in Corbett’s April 14 “pepper lab,” including a small sampling of a dried ghost chili.

“There is a delayed reaction,” Corbett told Silva and other students brave enough to sample the pepper. “It takes 10 to 15 seconds to get the full effect with them being dried.”

“It’s starting to burn pretty bad,” Silva said around 15-20 seconds after trying the pepper. “I’m sweating. I think it’s called ghost because it sneaks up on you.”

“The roof of my mouth is burning and so is my tongue,” Brannan said, muscling through the Nut Shack challenge.

Brannan’s eyes began to water and he appeared nauseous.

Craig gave Brannan sweet cashews to help take the edge off the burn, and Brannan able to put the remainder of the ghost chili in his mouth, satisfying his need to display his machismo and finish the challenge.

Silva drank milk and put sugar on his tongue to cut the heat of Corbett’s “pepper lab” lineup. “My hands feel almost asleep,” Silva said. “They are starting to tingle.”

The pain seemed to subside for both Silva and Brannan and the two survived the challenge of the ghost pepper, perhaps joining the ranks of thousands of other chiliheads across the nation.

Both Corbett and Craig said they would continue to offer valuable information about peppers and chances to sample the heat as long as there are chiliheads crazy enough to try them. The scores of hot sauce manufacturers will most likely continue to concoct hot sauces and cross-pollinate peppers as well, hoping to claim the fame of having the hottest pepper sauce on the Scoville Scale.