Is Death by Chiles Possible?

When two interns ate a small portion of bhut jolokia—the world's hottest chile pepper—at a trade show, it raised the question: can eating chile peppers kill you?

Photo from jcwadeaz on Flickr

There was a time when I took two of our interns to New York City's Fancy Food Show to hunt the aisles for spiciness. We separated, and when I met up with them both, they had--separately, mind you--taken a small but scorching sample of a dried bhut jolokia, the hottest chile on Earth. They were both stunned by the heat, gulping up any drinks they could find and ruining their palates for the day. "Did I not teach you anything during your internship?" I asked. Lesson number one of a Chile Pepper internship: Don't eat a sliver of the bhut jolokia unless you have gallons of milk at your side. Actually, don't eat it straight-up at all...

Then, last week, we conducted a taste-test of spicy chocolates for an upcoming article. While most were dark chocolate swirled with smoky, mild chipotle or an ending pop of cayenne, there was one chocolate that stunned our senses. "People who work for me tried it and cried after eating it," the owner warned me over the phone about the bhut jolokia-infused chocolate. "Oh, we can take it!" I answered back. Take it, we could not. Just a nibble made our usually-conditioned taste buds burst into flames.

Is It Possible To Die From Chile Overload?

This brought us to the question: At what level can chiles hurt you? Is it possible to die from chile overload? There was the story of the 33-year-old British man who ate a good amount of chiles and then died in his sleep. "He is the only person ever documented of dying this way," internist Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D. assured me. "People do all kinds of stuff before they die. Just because someone competes in a jalapeño-eating contest, and then dies, doesn't mean it's related." In fact, the average person would have to eat enough capsicum equal to approximately 30 pounds of jalapeños in one sitting to get a lethal dose.

"Although you may feel like dying, it won't kill you."

The Shock Could Be Potentially Dangerous

"The main complication of eating too many chiles is that you feel miserable. So the answer is that although you may feel like dying, it won't kill you," Teitelbaum says. Now, here's where a problem happens. If you aren't quite sure what you're getting into—as in, you mistake a piece of jolokia for a mild chile or someone spikes your soup with a hefty amount of Habanero Tabasco—the shock could be potentially dangerous. It would shoot the blood pressure up, which could trigger a heart attack or stroke in someone with underlying medical conditions.

So in the end, Dr. Teitelbaum says don't give up the chile dream. "If you know what you're getting into, it's okay. It's when you get the unexpected that there could be a problem." And, don't forget, chiles are rich in vitamins A and C, and beta-carotene, and high in anti-oxidants. Just steer clear of pieces of bhut jolokia.

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This was originally published as part of the column "Serious Heat."

July 2009