Spicy food might burn in the moment, but it likely won’t harm your health in the long term

Everyone has a different tolerance for spicy food — some love the burn, while others can’t take the heat. But the scientific consensus on whether spicy food can have an effect — positive or negative — on your health is pretty mixed.

In September 2023, a 14-year-old boy died after consuming a spicy pepper as part of the viral “one chip challenge.” The Paqui One Chip Challenge uses Carolina Reaper and Naga Viper peppers, which are among the hottest peppers in the world.

While the boy’s death is still under examination by health officials, it has gotten some of the spicy chips being used in these challenges removed from stores.

A cardboard display at a gas station reading 'One Chip Challenge Real Peppers Real Heat' with several bags and boxes of 'Paqui' brand chips.

Many stores have removed the Paqui One Chip Challenge chips from their shelves.
AP Photo/Steve LeBlanc

As an epidemiologist, I’m interested in how spicy food can affect people’s health and potentially worsen symptoms associated with chronic diseases like inflammatory bowel disease. I am also interested in how diet, including spicy foods, can increase or decrease a person’s lifespan.

The allure of spicy food

Spicy food can refer to food with plenty of flavor from spices, such as Asian curries, Tex-Mex dishes or Hungarian paprikash. It can also refer to foods with noticeable heat from capsaicin, a chemical compound found to varying degrees in hot peppers.

As the capsaicin content of a pepper increases, so does its ranking on the Scoville scale, which quantifies the sensation of being hot.

Capsaicin tastes hot because it activates certain biological pathways in mammals – the same pathways activated by hot temperatures. The pain produced by spicy food can provoke the body to release endorphins and dopamine. This release can prompt a sense of relief or even a degree of euphoria.

In the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere, more people than ever are consuming spicy foods, including extreme pepper varieties.

Hot-pepper-eating contests and similar “spicy food challenges” aren’t new, although spicy food challenges have gotten hotter – in terms of spice level and popularity on social media.

Hot peppers like the Carolina Reaper can induce sweating and make the consumer feel like their mouth is burning.

Short-term health effects

The short-term effects of consuming extremely spicy foods range from a pleasurable sensation of heat to an unpleasant burning sensation across the lips, tongue and mouth. These foods can also cause various forms of digestive tract discomfort, headaches and vomiting.

If spicy foods are uncomfortable to eat, or cause unpleasant symptoms like migraines, abdominal pain and diarrhea, then it’s probably best to avoid those foods. Spicy food may cause these symptoms in people with inflammatory bowel diseases, for example.

Spicy food challenges notwithstanding, for many people across the world, consumption of spicy food is part of a long-term lifestyle influenced…

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