UNITED STATES NEWS

Spicy food challenges have a long history. Have they become too extreme?

Sep 11, 2023, 1:53 PM | Updated: 1:56 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — A tortilla chip maker’s decision to pull its extremely spicy product sold as a “One Chip Challenge” from store shelves following the death of a Massachusetts teen has renewed attention on the popularity — and risks — of similar dares marketed by brands and spread widely online.

Spicy food challenges have been around for years. From local chile pepper eating contests to restaurant walls of fame for those who finished extra hot dishes, people around the world have been daring each other to eat especially fiery foods, with some experts pointing to the internal rush of competition and risk-taking.

But extremely spicy products created and marketed solely for the challenges — and possible internet fame — is a more recent phenomenon, and teens are particularly exposed to them because of social media, associate professor of psychology at Florida International University Elisa Trucco says.

There’s a “glamorization of these challenges on social media,” Trucco said. “You see a lot of ‘likes’ or comments (indicating) social status or popularity from these challenges, but you don’t see a lot of the negative consequences — like the trips to the E.R. or other injuries.”

Alexander DePaoli, an associate teaching professor of marketing at Northeastern University, added that people may put themselves through discomfort and share it online for a sense of “in-group belonging,” similar to offline challenges as a game of truth or dare.

A YouTube series called “Hot Ones,” for example, rose to internet fame several years ago with videos of celebrities’ reactions to eating spicy wings. Meanwhile, restaurants nationwide continue to offer in-person challenges — from Buffalo Wild Wings’ “Blazin’ Challenge” to the “Hell Challenge” of Wing King in Las Vegas. In both challenges, patrons over 18 can attempt to eat a certain amount of wings doused in extra hot sauce in limited time without drinking or eating other food.

Chile pepper eating contests are also regularly hosted around the world. Last year, Gregory Foster ate 10 Carolina Reaper chillies, which Guinness World Records has named the hottest in the world, at a record time of 33.15 seconds in San Diego, California.

In most cases, people will choose to participate in challenges that they are trained for or don’t consider to be truly dangerous. But a line is crossed when someone gets hurt, DePaoli noted.

While the autopsy results for 10th-grader Harris Wolobah are still pending, the teen’s family allege that the One Chip Challenge is responsible for his Sept. 1 death. The product, manufactured by Paqui, instructs participants to eat an eponymously named chip and then see how long they can go without consuming other food and water.

Sales of the chip seem largely driven by people posting videos on social media of them or their friends taking the challenge. They show people, including teens and children, eating the chips and then reacting to the heat. Some videos show people gagging, coughing and begging for water.

Since Wolobah’s death, Paqui has asked retailers to stop selling the product and some health experts have pointed to potential dangers of eating such spicy products under certain circumstances, particularly depending on the amount of capsaicin, a component that gives chile peppers their heat.

But there are plenty of similar products that remain online and on store shelves, including Red Hot Reaper’s One Chip Challenge, Blazing Foods’ Death Nut Challenge and Tube of Terror Challenge as well as Wilder Toys’ Hot Ones Truth or Dab sauce game. The Associated Press reached out to each company after Paqui pulled its own product, but did not receive a response.

DePaoli said it’s not unusual for companies to engage in viral marketing.

“It is unusual, however, to have something where the brand actually wants you to put something into your body,” he said. Companies “don’t want to be liable for that.”

Despite warnings or labels specifying adult-use only, the products can still get into the hands of young people who might not understand the risks, Trucco added.

“There’s a reason why these challenges are appealing,” she said. “This type of marketing sells.”

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Spicy food challenges have a long history. Have they become too extreme?