In March, one month after the Guinness announcement, the controversy deepened. A group of Australians announced that they had grown a pepper that rated 1,463,700 SHUs, far hotter than the Infinity and the Naga Viper. The Australians’ pepper was cultivated from a strain of the Trinidad Scorpion that the developers called the Butch T. They are now marketing a sauce called Scorpion Strike with the tagline “Stupidly Hot BBQ Sauce.”
The Trinidad Scorpion, which has a pod that comes to a point like a stinger, was tested last year by Marlin Bensinger, a chemical engineer who has worked with peppers extensively for more than 40 years. He rated it 1.2 million SHUs and calls it “the hottest pepper we have seen with the most consistent analytical performance.” The SHU rating was corroborated by Analytical Food Laboratories in Dallas.
A pepper so hot has market potential beyond barbecue sauce and designer salsa. “There are economic perks that come with laying claim to having, developing, or engineering the hottest pepper in the world,” Bensinger says. “Unlike the Guinness records for eating the most hot dogs or packing the most people in a VW Beetle, this type of record could change the microeconomics of small geographic areas of the world.” For example, Blair’s Reserve 16 Million Crystals hot sauce claims an SHU of 16 million and retails for $595 a bottle. Some people love to eat the hottest of all peppers raw, or take their hot sauce by the spoonful. Watch videos of such fire-eaters (British men mostly, and alarmingly pale) on YouTube, where they stare into the camera sweating and hiccuping while describing the exact nature of their excruciation. You might wonder if any of these pepper fiends has died in the process. The answer is no, at least not yet.
In a 1980 study called “Acute Toxicity of Capsaicin in Several Animal Species,” researchers administered pure crystalline capsaicin to a variety of rodents. Capsaicin was given orally, intravenously and topically. Rabbits were least sensitive to the spice, while guinea pigs were particularly pained by it. Assuming we have about the same pepper sensitivity as mice, the lethal dose for humans is about 13 grams (0.5 ounces) of solid capsaicin, swallowed, for a 150-pound person. Three pounds of the hottest peppers in the world could kill you.
But we have been ingesting plenty of capsaicin for centuries with no ill effects. Sure, there will be sweating, flushing and temporary gastric inflammation, but the bulk of the medical research on capsaicin focuses on its benefits. Several university studies have suggested that capsaicin consumption can aid in weight loss and inhibit tumor growth. When it is applied topically, nerves can be overwhelmed and the skin goes numb. There’s even a capsaicin patch for joint pain. But the scientists at the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation have a more nefarious plan for the Bhut Jolokia--pepper-bomb hand grenades.
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