Why I eat extremely spicy food

Carolina Reapers, up to 2,200,000 SHU. Picture by Sally Crossthwaite

I like spicy food that most people would consider physically impossible to eat. They call me insane and beg for a logical reason why I would inflict such pain on myself. For those who don’t know me, I use Carolina Reaper pepper powder to put in my food. This powder has a rating of 1,500,000 Scoville Heat Unit (SHU). If you’re not into peppers that’s probably gibberish. SHU ratings are like a temperature scale on a thermometer but for spiciness. To compare, a jalapeño is between 1,000–20,000 SHU and most pepper spray to be used on humans is anywhere between 500,000–2,000,000. So, this powder I bought is like eating pepper spray level heat (and, let me tell you, getting any of it your eyes is like getting pepper sprayed).

Now you’re wondering why would I eat pepper spray level heat willingly and sprinkle it on like most people do salt? Normally I chuckle and say “ha, I just like it” because the answer is a bit more complex. It involves three reasons which I explain in more detail:

  1. Psychological
  2. Competitiveness
  3. Flavor

Psychological

Before I got into extremely spicy food I didn’t know there was a real, powerful, psychological reason people like spicy food. Food is spicy because of natural chemical called capsaicin. Capsaicin has a wide range of health benefits from helping protect against prostate cancer to pain management. However, enough capsaicin also gives you a “happiness high” because it release an endorphin rush. The endorphins are meant to block out the pain.

Good Morning America interviewed Ted Barrus who goes around the country and eats the spiciest things he can described this “high” like this:

“My body starts tingling all over, my hands and arms start to go numb, and I sometimes get lightheaded and euphoric. It feels good,” he said.

Imagine feeling euphoric after every meal. And because you get used to capsaicin and build up a tolerance you have to eat a higher level of SHU to feel that way. This is why many people, like me, go from chopped jalapeños in their food is way too spicy to feeling like nothing in any restaurant is spicy enough.

Competitiveness

I’m a competitive person with myself. Whether its business, programming, or even eating I’m always challenging myself. Just a few years ago I legitimately thought Sriracha was too hot and a Wendy’s spicy chicken made me pant like a dog. One day however my brother told me about a burger place in town called Killer Burger who had a burger called “The Marine” that contained actual Ghost Peppers (~1,000,000 SHU) chopped on it. His friend had tried it and blacked out and puked outside. This is a real response to it. They make you sign a waiver and you can not order it to go because they’re worried of you eating and driving and killing yourself.

Being the competitive person I am I thought “I can do this. I just need to train for it” and that’s what I did. I ate a spicy dish every day. I was dipping habaneros in ranch like people do with carrots or sweet peppers to train. About a 6 months later I was going to eat it but Killer Burger told me they stopped selling it because so many people would barf it up in the store (surprise).

To this day though I have that mindset on spicy food. If I see “spicy” on a label or menu I see it like a challenge and order it. It might sound silly to some, but there’s a feeling of accomplishment when you eat something nobody else can handle.

Flavor

The number one response when people hear me order spicy food is “that’s so spicy you can’t even taste the food! It just burns!”. This is true if it’s actually too spicy for you. The amazing thing with building a tolerance though is that food that’s too spicy for others isn’t spicy at all for you and all you taste is the flavor.

There has been more occasions than I can count that I thought the food I ordered wasn’t a spicy dish and someone tried it and their face started melting off. For them, they just ruined their whole meal. For me, I’m enjoying the flavors of a dish they can’t have. Building up your tolerance is like unlocking a whole suite of new dishes. You can order anything on a any menu. You can try any sauce and eat any snack.

These reasons are why I always choose the hottest dishes and why I make my food with gloves and have to sign waivers. Now you know.

I thought I would share the two foods I still can’t eat completely without feeling like I’m going to die:

  1. El Jefe wings from Fire on the Mountain in Portland, OR
  2. Haunted Ghost Pepper chips by PAQUI.