The capsaicin epidemic

Several years ago, stories arose about middle schools around the U.S. banning Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.


Because the administrations feared students were becoming addicted to the spicy snacks. It even led to teachers confiscating the fiery treats.

Has the addiction spread? Or, perhaps, has it even worsened?

I say this in part because recently a friend told me a story about a young man he knows — the identities of these people will remain secret, to protect their privacy — who was suspended from school. Why? Because he and some of his friends ate a ghost pepper.

No, really. One of the young man’s friends smuggled a ghost pepper into school and dared some of his classmates to take a bite. Somehow, a teacher got wind of this, and the students involved got torched.

“Apparently, the school thought it was weaponized,” my friend said, only half joking. Mind you, a ghost pepper packs a lot of heat and could theoretically be dangerous if, say, you rubbed one in someone’s eyeball. But it’s also true that with heat comes an endorphin rush, and with an endorphin rush there could result the need for heightened levels of that rush — kind of like a drug addiction.

A study conducted a number of years ago by psychologist Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania suggested that a taste for painfully spicy foods, such as ghost peppers, is not a capsaicin addiction, but rather something the brain creates by flipping a switch, so to speak, from the pain as a bad thing to pain as a good thing.

A article referred to this as “hedonic reversal” or “benign masochism,” perhaps akin to the thrill some get from being frightened at a horror film or while riding a rollercoaster — the mind turns what originally would have been a negative sensation into a positive one.

Now, it wasn’t until I heard the suspended-from-school-over-a-piece-of-fruit story that I realized my brain has flipped the switch, and hard, in recent years. If you’ve read this space before, you know of my obsession with hot sauces. But recently, my heat habit has taken another step, and I didn’t even realize it.

While shopping at one of my favorite Latin markets a few weeks back, I found a jar of pickled habanero peppers for a few bucks, so I bought it, figuring I might use one here or there on a pizza, or to have spice on hand for chili or soups.

But when I got home, I popped open the jar and ate one. It was delicious — scorching hot, but delicious. I enjoyed the burn and then went about my business. Trouble is, soon enough, I found that anytime I opened the refrigerator, even if it was just for a drink of water, I couldn’t stop myself from grabbing a habanero from the jar and popping it into my mouth.

Every time, it was instant burn plus flavor burst, at times making me wince. But a few hours later, I would go back and do it again. I can’t explain why, but for some reason the pain became a comfort of sorts. I have always been an olive snacker — open the fridge, look for a snack, settle on four or five olives until I know what I really want — but habanero peppers? That’s newer. I even found myself sipping the juice.

Well, I decided to take a good hard look at my new obsession, and they seem harmless enough. The brand name is Macha and the ingredients are simply whole habaneros, vinegar and citrus. There’s dietary fiber and protein, which is good, and plenty of sodium, which might not be so good. But otherwise, they’re no different than any other snack, right?

But when I opened the jar and took a whiff in the process of writing this article, my mouth literally watered. In fact, I can just think about these treats and I will begin to salivate. Addiction? Capsaicin isn’t technically addictive, but it sure seems that way. I plucked out a big orange pepper, popped it into my mouth and the citrusy burn began. Did my brain identify it as pain? Sort of. Yes, my tongue burned, but my brain seemed to focus more on the flavor.

So, is it heat or how it tastes that drives people’s addiction to hot peppers? And are these habaneros enough to get me kicked out of school, assuming I was still going? For those kids, it was mostly just a prank, but I believe, if only mentally, the heat addiction is real.

And I’m not going into rehab anytime soon, at least not as long as my fridge is stocked with Macha habanero peppers. We’ll see how long it takes my brain to graduate to the ghost.