Posted October 21, 2004 by Nick Lindauer in Hot Sauce News

The hot stuff challenge

The hot stuff challenge

David Ryder / The Daily
Reporter Garrett McCulloch puts his stomach to the test against a shot of Tabasco pepper sauce in an experiement to find out how a person might fare against spicy food.

It’s man against spice, as The Daily sends one of its own to defy the norms of ingestion

By Garrett McCulloch
October 20, 2004

Spicy food: Some like it, others don’t, and a few truly daring devotees see it as a challenge.

Everyone knows at least one of these people. They are the ones who don’t taste what they eat as much as they feel it burn. When it comes to eating, their goal is to test their physical limits more than anything else.

In general, spicy food has a loyal following. Anyone can see this in the number of pre-packaged foods with spicy options, or even in the sheer force of the word “habanero.” Look at any antacid commercial, or the endless list of hot sauces on the market, and it is obvious this is a nation that treasures hot food.

I subjected my own digestive system to this test, putting it through a two-day spice gauntlet. After this, I was sure I would know my limits. Calling up a few good friends for moral support, I noticed that most seemed delighted to spend a few hours watching the self-destructive carnage that ensued.

Granted, food to me is better with a little kick to it. My kitchen is well-stocked with the standards — chili powder, chili oil, cayenne pepper and a half-gallon jug of hot red pepper flakes take up their fair share of space behind my cupboard doors.

But it was time to go a little farther.


The first stop was Thai Tom, one of several Thai restaurants one the Ave. Their entrees can be spiced to anyone’s taste, on a typical scale of one to five stars. I decided this was nowhere near enough, so I ordered nine-star Panang curry chicken.

Surprisingly, there was still some flavor behind the heat. My more sadistic friend who came along hoped to rectify this by pouring even more chili sauce onto the plate as I looked away. Even with this added boost, most of the burning subsided within about 20 minutes, leaving only a dull pain for the next few hours.

Heartburn from a spicy meal is nothing out of the ordinary. But when it becomes a chronic issue, there could be a more serious health problem behind it. According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC), a branch of the National Institutes for Health, the array of fiery foods is just one of the contributors to heartburn-related complications. Alcohol, fatty foods and smoking seem to be equally responsible.

When heartburn and acid reflux persist, according to the NDDIC Web site, Gastroesophegal Reflux Disease could be the problem. No one knows for sure what root causes lie behind this disorder, but over time it can lead to more serious health issues, including ulcers. The most extreme cases have even been connected to cancer.

Generally, a few lifestyle changes and over-the-counter antacids will handle the problem, according to the NDDIC, but the most severe circumstances could even require surgery.

This information did little to comfort me as I headed toward the local grocery store for my next challenge.


I picked up a bottle of Tabasco pepper sauce. One of the well-known names in hot sauce, Tabasco derives its kick solely from red peppers, the same ingredient that many people sprinkle on their pizza. In fact, the bottle has a modest list of three ingredients–distilled vinegar, red pepper and salt.

At this point, I reluctantly filled a shot glass with the pepper juice, doing everything I could to delay the inevitable for even a few seconds.

Do not ever do this, no matter how much prestige or money others may be offering. The aftermath is not what one would expect — but something entirely different and much, much worse.

“Bad! Not hot, just bad!” I screamed in agony after choking the shot down, according to eyewitnesses. The peppers are far from the strongest of the three ingredients.

I had expected to be writhing in pain on my kitchen floor from the shot, but instead found myself frantically looking for a glass of water to flush the taste of mildly spicy vinegar from my mouth.

Vinegar taste aside, the peppers may have actually been healthy. Dietician Dee Sandquist, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, said hot peppers are far less likely to cause a severe gastrointestinal condition than to aggravate something already wrong with the digestive system.

“In general, they have some good antioxidants that contribute to overall immune functioning,” said Sandquist, adding that there is evidence that certain spices can have other health benefits, even helping to prevent cancer.

“In some cultures, they use them in health-enhancing roles,” she said, pointing to cayenne pepper as near the top of a list on healthy spices.

For the healthy side of spicy food to really work, though, there should be a healthy digestive system (one that can handle the heat) processing them.

“Everyone is different in how they tolerate them,” Sandquist said.


Starting to question my own tolerance, I began round three. This took me to Wing Dome, one of the Ave.’s more infamous temples of excessive spice. Hoping to land a spot on the (somewhat) coveted “Wall of Flame,” all that stood in the way was two of their hottest chicken wings.

I thought it would be a good idea to start out with a warm-up round, ordering a few of their tamer wings to start out with. Even these were fairly spicy, but nothing too excruciating. With these out of the way, the hot “7-alarm” wings were next on the list.

Just the thought of the sauce drenching these wings is painful — the ingredients of the sauce alone could make up a spice hall of fame. The butter and oil base gets its power from a near-lethal combination of Tabasco sauce, chili powder, crushed red pepper, and habaneros — arguably the king of all hot peppers. The end product comes out as more of a paste than a sauce.

It hurt. From the first bite, the combination of peppers burned their way through my mouth. These concoctions were nothing but hot. This was the worst of the horrors, since any flavor the chicken or sauce may have ever had was crushed by the onslaught of pure pepper heat. I didn’t feel like what I was eating could rightly even be called food.

The wings scorched everything from my lips to the back of my throat. This burning was not as quick to go away, either. I felt the pain slither its way through my chest and stomach regions for several hours after.

My photo, though, now hangs triumphantly along with the hundred-or-so others who have survived the challenge over the years.

In the end, I emerged a survivor — so far.

Nick Lindauer

The Original Hot Sauce Blog