Man eats world’s hottest pepper; vomits, hallucinates, and is generally laid low

In Charlotte, North Carolina, a man named Ed Currie is on a quest. What gives meaning to his life is his attempt to produce the world’s hottest pepper.

Here’s how Ed Currie knew he was getting somewhere with his potentially record-breaking hot pepper:

“The first time we tried it, out of the six of us…four puked. So I knew I was on the right path, you know,” Currie says. . .

Currie tests different combinations of food, water, and mineral intake to see which one creates the hottest pepper. And he thinks he’s found it. Right now he calls the pepper HP22B. Guinness World Records officials are looking at the pepper to see if it is indeed the world’s hottest.

Currie works as a banker by day, but peppers are always on his mind. He even has security installed in the backyard.

“We’ve got all sorts of motion stuff. We’ve got dogs. We’ve got everything,” Currie says.

This is srs bzns!

A pepper’s heat is measured in Scoville units. The one Ed has to beat, the Trinidad Scorpion “Butch T” from Australia, measures 1.4 million Scoville. Dr. Calloway says Ed’s Guinness pepper, on average, measures 1.5 million Scoville. For comparison, a regular jalapeño is somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,500-5,000 Scoville.

Here’s Ed’s contender, HP22B:

The stuff that makes peppers hot is the compound capsaicin, here from the Wikipedia entry:

It’s thought to have evolved in wild chili peppers as a deterrent to mammalian predation, which destroys the seeds (bird predation doesn’t do that since the birds pass the seeds, dispersing them, which is what the plant “wants”).  Ed, of course, is simply increasing the content of capsaicin by artificial selection, demonstrating once again that nearly every trait in animals and plants has genetic variability.

According to Wikipedia, capsaicin binds to sense receptors that produce the burning sensation:

The burning and painful sensations associated with capsaicin result from its chemical interaction with sensory neurons. Capsaicin, as a member of the vanilloid family, binds to a receptor called the vanilloid receptor subtype 1 (VR1). First cloned in 1997, VR1 is an ion channel-type receptor. VR1, which can also be stimulated with heat and physical abrasion, permits cations to pass through the cell membrane and into the cell when activated. The resulting depolarization of the neuron stimulates it to signal the brain. By binding to the VR1 receptor, the capsaicin molecule produces the same sensation that excessive heat or abrasive damage would cause, explaining why the spiciness of capsaicin is described as a burning sensation.

The “heat” of peppers has traditionally been measured in “Scoville units,” a rather subjective procedure in which pepper extract is diluted in sugar water by various amounts, and then the dilution in which the heat can just be detected is its Scoville rating.  So, for example, the hottest peppers in this table below can have their extract diluted five million times and still have the heat detectable. The garden variety jalapeño, in contrast, has a Scoville rating of only 3500-8000.

Now, however, science can do a much better job, measuring capsaicin via liquid chromatography.  Still, pepper aficionados adhere to the Scoville scale.

The climax of this post is a video of Marshall Terry, a radio personality at WFAE in Charlotte, eating just a slice of Currie’s überpepper.  WARNING: it has scenes of vomiting and general debility.


  1. McWaffle
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Everybody knows that the world’s hottest pepper is the Merciless Pepper of Quetzalacatenango, grown deep in the jungle primeval by the inmates of a Guatemalan insane asylum.

  2. eric
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    It’s thought to have evolved in wild chili peppers as a deterrent to mammalian predation

    I heard a rumour that there are only two mammals dumb or crazy enough to voluntarily go back for more hot pepper – pigs and humans.

    I have no idea whether that’s true (probably not), but it makes for an amusing comment. :)

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      So if humans pig out on peppers, do pigs “human” out?

      I hear we do look a lot alike organ-wise.

      • Microraptor
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

        Isn’t “long pork” what human meat is called by some cannibalistic societies?

        • Chuck Spears
          Posted May 23, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

          “Long Pig” is the term.

  3. sasqwatch
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Snips and snails and puppy dog tails…

  4. Occam
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Is the capsaicinic debility determined, or does the hapless chap act out of his own free will?

    • Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      Never believe what they tell you about contracausal capsaicin deliberation.

      • Karen
        Posted November 16, 2011 at 8:45 am | Permalink

        Ha ha, +1!

  5. NewEnglandBob
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    I have not read this article yet because I am busy…

    but “Ed Currie”?


    Are you sure his name isn’t curry?

    • Ichneumonid
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

      Nominal determinism strikes again!

  6. Marta
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    I don’t believe it for a minute.

    Everyone knows that the hottest peppers are grown in New Mexico, which prides itself on cuisine which is inedible.

    The state’s motto is “Red or Green”?–and the answer, “neither, damn you”–is just not on.

    • Hempenstein
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      Did “is just spot on” get autocorrected to “is just not on”?

      • Marta
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

        Probably I mangled it, because I have a gift for that, but the point is, there is no such thing as non-volcanic New Mexican food. Even the ice cream burns.

        • GaryU
          Posted November 15, 2011 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

          Memo to self: Move to New Mexico!

          • Aryeh
            Posted November 16, 2011 at 7:41 am | Permalink

            New Mexico has (in my opinion) the best tasting peppers. They are called Hatch chili peppers and although they are not hot compared to habanero, they do have some kick. ( I live in Chicago and have to have them shipped frozen)

  7. daveau
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    I have no doubt that video will be on Tosh.0 tonight.

    Personally, I like to break a little scalp perspiration, but not so much heat that I can’t taste the other ingredients. It’s a fine line.

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      I do the nose running too, so I tend to limit myself to tabasco to be presentable in company.

      Which is too bad, I actually _like_ the stuff.

      • Hempenstein
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

        That’s good – I had a sense that appreciation for chiles had advanced in Scandinavia.

        But ca. 1984 there was an actual warning delivered on the evening news in Stockholm to the effect that a shipment of bell peppers was out in the markets that had, in so many words, back-mutated to wind up containing more capsaicin than usual.

  8. frank sellout
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Wasn’t that en episode of the Simpsons?

    I think that is what McWaffle in comment #1 is alluding to.

    • Jim Jones
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink


      “The Merciless Pepper of Quetzalacatenango, also known as the Guatemalan Insanity Pepper, is a very hot type of pepper that Chief Wiggum serves in his chili at Springfield’s Annual Chili Cook-Off.”

  9. Hempenstein
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Nice to see a chemical structure here!

    But as far as birds dispersing the seeds, that only applies to some birds. A colleague’s Red Bellied is crazy over pepper seeds, and shells each one to get at the seed. He seems to prefer poblanos but eats any regardless of Scoville scale.

    • Hempenstein
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      Oh, hell, that should say Red Bellied Parrot

  10. Pete Moulton
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Um…not to be too pedantic here, but they aren’t really peppers, you know. They’re chiles. Peppers are in an entirely different family.

    • Filipe
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      Many varieties of chili are in fact peppers, in the same species as sweet peppers, _Capsicum annum_. The ones in the photo are probably a different species, most likely _Capsicum chinense_.

      I always trick people who brag about how the can eat hot stuff (in particular Mexicans) into eating the truly strong horse-radish we have around here. Generally they can’t handle it (there’s no capsaicin there).

      • Pete Moulton
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

        I believe you misunderstood me, Filipe. True peppers, the source of black, white and green peppercorns are in the family Piperaceae. Chiles, members of the genus Capsicum, on the other hand, are in the entirely different family Solanaceae, along with the deadly nightshades, tomatoes, et al.

        • Kharamatha
          Posted November 16, 2011 at 6:37 am | Permalink

          Yes, I hear the tomatoes are very deadly this year.

    • drew
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      More Pedantry: Though the heat scale does still use as its unit the Scoville, they do not still measure it the traditional way. The Scoville scale has been adjusted to be representative of the actual amount of capsaicin in the pepper (as measured by LC), rather than being measured subjectively by tastings of serial dilutions.

    • Posted November 15, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      No, they’re all in the same genus.

  11. abb3w
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    As Wikipedia alludes, a more recent hypothesis is that rather than mammalian deterrent, capsaicin may have been evolutionarily selected for primarily as an anti-fungal agent; see (doi:10.1073/pnas.0802691105) for more details.

  12. Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    If ever you consume more pepper than you find comfortable DON’T take a swig of water or beer ~ things just get worse because the capsaicin is usually in oil

    In my experience any drink containing globules of fat such as cream, milk or yoghurt [Lassi] will relieve the pain

    I have been told the following, but I haven’t tried:
    ** Tomato juice is supposed to help, but I can’t imagine why
    ** Biting into a lime due to the acid, which neutralizes the alkaline capsaicin

    Hallucinations ~ is that true?

    • eric
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      Correction – don’t take ONE swig of beer. Take enough that you no longer care. ;)

      The St. Bernard’s brandy lets a freezing person stay active, but doesn’t actually increase their longevity. The chili eater’s beer serves a similar function – it doesn’t prevent the eventual intestinal punishment, it just lets you enjoy the time before it happens.

    • drew
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      Pedantry: it isn’t the fat globules that help to relieve the heat, it is the protein Casein found in dairy products.

    • drew
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      Also, I’m not certain why but your comment makes me think of this

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 16, 2011 at 1:32 am | Permalink

      I was once told that, rather than reach for liquids, you should eat some bread, crackers, tortilla chips, etc. Sorta soaks up the hot. Works for me.

  13. tomh
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    It’s thought to have evolved in wild chili peppers as a deterrent to mammalian predation

    This speculation has been superseded by recent research Evolutionary Ecology of Pungency in Wild Chilies , which presents convincing evidence that capsaicin is produced as an anti-fungal agent. For anyone interested in the subject, (I happen to grow a lot of chiles), this is a very readable paper, even for a non-scientist like myself. Plus, it’s only 4 pages long.

    • Occam
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      Very ingenious paper.
      If the authors had chosen to present a logistic regression in Fig. 1D, they could have shown that, while there is no significant difference between pungent and non-pungent fruits relative to the number of hemipteran scars, there is a nice group threshold relative to the fungal infection score.
      Fig. 3A shows an interesting N-S gradient, correlated with the proportion of plant pungency: the farther to the South, the more pungent.

  14. Karen
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    These sorts of discussions make me so sad. I grew up without spicy-hot food, because my mother grew up in the midwest and tended to cook that cuisine. (Pork ribs in sauerkraut, anyone?)

    Then I worked with a bunch of people who liked hot food, and we would go out for hot Chinese or Indian food once a week. My colleagues taught me to like spicy-hot food.

    Then finally, I developed asthma, which can be triggered by (among other things) the slightest bit of spicy-hot food. So now that I love it, I can’t eat it anymore!!!

  15. M31
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    “So, for example, the hottest peppers in this table below can have their extract diluted five million times and still have the heat detectable.”

    What level of dilution is this on the homeopathy scale?

    • Posted November 15, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      Approximately 3C

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      About 6X, or “still not useful” (note that, say, US arsenic limit in drinking water is 8X).

      A homeopath target 60X or 10^-60 dilution. As a comparison, there are ~ 10^80 atoms in the observable universe.

  16. Onkel Bob
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    When I lived in the valley (The SillyCon Valley) I grew Jalapeno, Serrano, Tabasco, Cayenne, Bird’s eye, and Habanero chilies. The first five I could pretty much eat without too much help, although by the end of the summer the Bird’s eye chilies were very hot and a tomato was needed to quench the fire. The Habaneros were another story. First they’re not as appealing in taste as the others. (The Cayenne chilies were sweet and hot and were the house favorite.) Then the heat was just about unbearable. We ate pounds of fresh cayenne chilies as we must have had 20 cayenne plants. But the habanero was all by itself, 3 plants and never really appreciated.
    Oh and tabasco chilies are not very tasty either. My jalapeno or cayenne salsa was was always in demand, but the Tabasco just didn’t work. The chilies are awful when eaten raw and worse when added to tomato sauce.

    • tomh
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      The Habaneros were another story.

      Habaneros range from about 100k to 350k scoville units, and, like all chiles, the fruits can differ widely, even from the same plant. They have a very distinctive flavor which some people find unpleasant. I use them in two ways; I sometimes drop one whole into a sauce, a mole, for instance, or even a tomatillo sauce, so that it can infuse its flavor (and heat, you don’t want to leave them in too long) – in Mexico, this is letting the chile take a walk through the sauce. Or I dry them, (you have to use a food dehydrator, they are too thick to hang dry), then grind them and use a little in the chili powder I make. They definitely give things their unique flavor.

  17. Steve Smith
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    What happens if I eat a Tablespoon of pure capsaicin?

    • drew
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      If you managed to not throw it up immediately…

      You’d probably live but here’s some things to consider.

      Capsaicin can be toxic. Capsaicin prevents nerve cells from communicating with each other by blocking the production of certain neurotransmitters and at high concentrations it can cause apoptosis. So eating a tablespoon of pure capsaicin could render your tongue permanently damaged, not to mention the lining of your esophagus; your stomach and small and large intestines could also be damaged, though the mucosal lining on the inside of your stomach may help to blunt the damage. If there were significant enough damage to the gut epithelium you could potentially get leakage of your gut contents into the surrounding tissues leading to abdominal abcesses forming and eventual septicemia. I’d also imagine the pain upon it exitting you would be considerable.

      LD50 in mice is 47.2 mg/kg according to wikipedia.

      • Utakata
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

        “I’d also imagine the pain upon it exitting you would be considerable.”

        …this whole topic makes me want to have a mad dash to the toilet. :(

        • Diane G.
          Posted November 16, 2011 at 1:38 am | Permalink

          Which reminds me of a sign in the bathroom of a place where a Tex-Mex cooking party was going on:

          “Guys who were chopping jalapenos should wash their hands before peeing.”

          • Microraptor
            Posted November 16, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

            Washing your hands before picking your nose is also a good idea.

  18. Ed Stephenson
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Capsaicin as an anti-fungal agent doesn’t preclude an additional role as an anti-mammal predation agent. The anti-fungal role, which seems fairly clearcut, does not explain why chilies “advertise” themselves by turning a bright red color when ripe. That seems most easily explained as a bird-attracting adaptation.

  19. Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    I very skeptical of the events depicted in the video.

    As a pepper addict myself, I have never known a fellow aficionado who would take a large enough bite of a pepper (reputed to be the hottest in the world. no less) that would cause this much “harm.” Moreover, I find it hard to believe that the guy behind the pepper eater would just sit there and laugh and joke if his buddy was in real agony.

    Hallucinations? Por favor. Giveth me a break.

    • MadScientist
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      You can always write to Ed and ask for a jar with the flesh of 1 HP22B and see for yourself.

    • Posted November 15, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      I slightly wondered if the hallucinations were brought about more by the electrolyte disturbance from throwing up violently. But then again, apparently capsaicin does have some action on nerve cells.

  20. MadScientist
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    I’m inclined to agree with Currie – the environment must also play a significant part. I transplanted a wild hot pepper years ago but in my garden it produced a fruit with barely any taste. I wish I knew what conditions encouraged the hot taste.

    • drew
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      high heat (temperature) and low moisture tend to produce the hotter chiles. Nutrient stress also tends to impact how hot the chile is; lower nutrients produce hotter fruit.

      I’ve also seen suggestions to leave the chiles on the plant until they’re very ripe, i.e. wait until they’re really red before picking them.

      • Ray Moscow
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

        Yep, the riper, the hotter.

        We grow a few chilis in our garden. It’s only barely hot enough here (southern England) to get a decent crop.

  21. Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Nah, you want some of this :-)

  22. Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    So it’s his mission to produce the world’s hottest pepper. Why does he have to eat it?
    And I’m sure many people have noticed that this guy’s day job is as … A BANKER.
    Jokes, please?

  23. Nick LaRue
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    OK now you’re talking. :)

    I love hot spicy food and have been slowly building my up my taste buds to handle hotter food. I prefer Thai and Indian flavours. Not a huge fan of Mexican. We used to grow our own birds eye chilies. They were on the hotter end of the scale for birds eye.

    However I think I’ll pass on this level. I actually like to enjoy the food. Though I do like it hot! You have to build up your resistance though otherwise you simply don’t enjoy it.

    Just FYI, in Australia they call bell peppers capsicums. Not sure who else does.

    • Nick LaRue
      Posted November 16, 2011 at 5:33 am | Permalink

      Forgot to mention that some the birds seemed to enjoy our chillies quite a bit. Thankfully the bush was big. I’m curious to know if there are any wild chilli bushes in the nearby national park where we used to live.

  24. Ray Moscow
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    At home we often cook with birdseye peppers. Those are hot enough for us, at present. Occasionally we’ve grown some habaneroes, which are also really good (and potent).

    The chili sauce from Trinidad is made from habaneroes — and it’s excellent (and recommended).

  25. GaryU
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    I would have to try a slice. There would be no way to stop me. Yes, I’m THAT stupid.

  26. Bryan
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    So “law enforcement grade pepper spray” is 3x stronger than the pepper in the video? I guess I won’t be heading down to Occupy Wall Street after all…

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 16, 2011 at 1:43 am | Permalink

      Yeah, that got my attention, too!

  27. Posted January 5, 2014 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    I tried that pepper already I fainted for an hour I’m 12years old

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  1. [...] had been initially given by natural selection. Here is Jerry Coyne’s take on the science of hot peppers! GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); [...]

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