Some people just love jalapenos, raw or pickled, on just about any kind of food, any time of day. Each time you chew a jalapeno pepper, you're releasing a spicy heat that measures 2,500 to 5,000 units on the Scoville heat scale. But eating a ghost pepper, or bhut jolokia, takes the heat to a whole new (and painful) level.
The Scoville scale is used to measure the heat of chili peppers and foods made with chili peppers, such as hot sauce. During the measurement process, capsaicin oil is extracted from a pepper and assigned an intensity rating that can range from zero to millions of Scoville units. A green bell pepper, for example, has a Scoville rating of zero, while the ghost pepper tips the scale at more than 1 million units. It was the first pepper to measure so high.
When you bite into a ghost pepper, your mouth feels heat in the most extreme way. Your tongue's receptors register the intensity of the pepper and relay that information to your brain, which interprets the pepper as a burning, pain-inducing interloper. This causes a chain reaction in your body as the capsaicin in the ghost pepper initiates widespread tissue inflammation and begins to wreak havoc on your nerve endings, dilating blood vessels and making you feel hot all over. Suddenly, you're too, too hot.
Your body is staging a violent protest. But to what extent? Could eating ghost peppers cause your demise?
Yes, you could die from ingesting ghost peppers. In fact, researchers have determined a 150-pound (68-kilogram) person would need to eat 3 pounds (1.3 kilograms) of dried and powdered capsaicin-rich peppers like the ghost pepper to die. They based their findings on results extrapolated from similar studies that measure capsaicin's toxic effects on animals.
The good news for spice lovers is that your body would give up long before you reached a deadly level of capsaicin ingestion. The pain and inflammation would be too much to bear. Capsaicin is debilitating to the eyes and airways; that's why pepper spray is an effective defense weapon. At 2 million Scoville heat units, pepper spray can stop an attacker in his or her tracks. In India, the ghost pepper's country of origin, the Defence Research and Development Organization once even made grenades with the powerful bhut jolokia (they had to give them up as the chili powder was susceptible to fungal rot).
In 2016, a man taking part in an eating contest ate a ghost pepper and felt an intense burning in the mouth. He drank six glasses of water to cool off, one of the worst things you can do when you've had too much pepper (milk is a better choice). He vomited so much that he tore a hole in his esophagus. He was rushed to hospital where doctors found out his left lung collapsed. The man spent 23 days in the hospital and was sent home with a gastric tube, according to a report in the Journal of Emergency Medicine. Still, this seems to be a rare case.
So why do some people seem to handle the heat of ghost peppers better than others? It's a nurtured ability, scientists believe. Over time, capsaicin kills pain receptors in the mouth, and, eventually, peppers that are excruciating to the uninitiated are simply a pleasant heat to others.