It happened over the weekend when 14-year-old Harris Wolobah ate a corn chip flavored with the world's hottest chili pepper at school. The boy from Worcester, Massachusetts, died hours later.
According to reports, on September 1, local time, Harris’ mother Lois Wolobah received a call from the school nurse that day and was told that her son was sick, so she rushed to the school. When she arrived she saw her son clutching his stomach and took him home. Harris lost consciousness two hours later and was taken to a hospital where he died.
The boy once told his mother that he ate a Paqui tortilla chip — a “2023 Paqui Slice Challenge” tortilla chip, to be exact. The snacks are individually packaged in slices, and the outer packaging is a coffin-shaped carton with drawings of skulls, snakes and the Grim Reaper. The box comes with a challenge: Consumers are encouraged to hold back for as long as possible without drinking or eating anything after eating a slice, and post their reactions on social media.
Lois believes the super-spicy nachos, which had no underlying health issues, contributed to her son's death. "I just want parents to be aware that this is not safe," the mother told The New York Times. "(The super-spicy tortilla chips) need to be completely taken off the market."
On Sept. 7, the maker of the super-spicy tortilla chips, Amplify Snack Brands, a subsidiary of Hershey's, announced it was removing them from shelves. The company said in a statement that the product was developed for adults only and carries clear warnings. It is not suitable for "children or anyone with sensitivities or food allergies to spicy foods, pregnancy or underlying health conditions." The statement also said: "We are seeing an increase in teenagers and others ignoring these warnings. ... Therefore, while this product has always complied with food safety standards, out of an abundance of caution we are actively working with retailers , remove the product from the shelves.”
Harris' cause of death has not yet been determined, and it is not yet certain that the super spicy corn chips he ate before his death were the direct cause of death. An autopsy will be performed on Harris, but the results could take up to 12 weeks, the Massachusetts Medical Examiner's Office said.
Some people are beginning to condemn this social media trend that is harmful to teenagers. But Harris' death has brought to light some rare but worrying medical reports - as chili peppers get hotter, tasting them becomes more dangerous, more likely to bring tasters to the brink of death.
Paqui nachos are flavored with Carolina Reaper pepper and Naga Viper pepper. The former is currently the hottest chili pepper in the world, while the latter once topped the list of the hottest peppers in the world in 2011, but now it can only barely make it into the top ten in the world.
In fact, pepper growers seeking the fiery effect have been creating spicier hybrids. In 2007, the Ghost Pepper was the hottest, but three years later, a series of new models including Infinity Chili, Naga Viper Pepper, Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper, etc. Hybrids soon overtook the ghost pepper as the hottest pepper in the world. Then, in 2013, the Carolina Reaper pepper appeared, and until now no new variety has emerged to replace it.
The amount of capsaicin, the compound that gives peppers their spicy flavor, can be measured in Scoville heat units (SHU). The Carolina Reaper pepper has a capsaicin content of up to 2.2 million SHU, which is as high as the capsaicin content in self-defense pepper spray (2 million to 5 million SHU). For comparison, ghost peppers have a Scoville Heat Unit of 1 million SHU and jalapenos have 3,500 SHU. Naga viper peppers contain up to 1.4 million SHU of capsaicin.
These extremely hot peppers have been linked to serious health problems. A case report published in 2020 by the University of Mississippi showed that a healthy 15-year-old suffered severe headaches for several days after boldly eating Carolina Reaper peppers. Six days later, he was admitted to the emergency room with worsening headaches, nausea, and vomiting. Doctors discovered that his blood pressure had soared and that spasms in the arteries in his brain were restricting blood flow, causing brain swelling and cerebral infarction (the death of tissue due to a lack of blood supply). . The 15-year-old patient was diagnosed with reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome (RCVS) caused by chili pepper ingestion. Fortunately, he made a full recovery after treatment.
The doctor concluded: "These super hot peppers may contain a unique vasoactive substance, and it is not ruled out that the concentration of capsaicin has some dose-related effects, which may trigger RCVS. We still need further research to determine this The exact pathophysiological mechanism of the phenomenon. This case provides further evidence that ingestion of chili peppers may have serious consequences and that more in-depth studies are needed to assess their safety."
The link between Carolina Reaper peppers and episodes of RCVS is nothing new. In 2018, health care workers in New York reported a case of RCVS in a 34-year-old man following a chili-eating contest. The man consumed Carolina Reaper peppers during the game and over the next few days suffered severe neck and head pain, as well as severe thunderclap headaches. Scans revealed an unexpected narrowing of arteries in his brain. However, after treatment, the man recovered.
"Capsicum is a vasoactive substance and RCVS should be considered in the differential diagnosis of patients who develop thunderclap headaches after ingestion of chili peppers (containing capsaicin)," the doctors concluded in their report.
But the brain's blood vessels may not be the only target of excess capsaicin. A 2012 case study in Turkey reported that a healthy 25-year-old man suffered a heart attack after taking commercially available weight-loss cayenne pepper tablets. Follow-up tests revealed that the cause of the heart attack was coronary artery spasm. The researchers noted that similar effects were found in rat hearts. "This product may increase the risk of life-threatening cardiovascular events and we recommend that it should be closely monitored and controlled by relevant agencies globally," the authors of the case report wrote of the cayenne pepper tablets.
It's unclear how the capsaicin levels in Paqui Extra Spicy Nachos compare to diet chili pills, or whether the capsaicin content in each tortilla chip is standardized. It's also possible, as a Mississippi doctor speculated, that the Carolina Reaper contains "a unique vasoactive substance" other than capsaicin. But currently, death from ingesting large amounts of capsaicin is not impossible.
Dr. Peter Chai, an associate professor of emergency medicine and medical toxicology at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, told The Associated Press that capsaicin itself can be fatal: "Consumption of these products in high concentrations Capsaicin in corn chips or potato chips may cause death. …It depends on the amount of capsaicin a person is exposed to. At higher doses, it may induce fatal cardiac arrhythmias or cause irreversible damage to the heart. "