What could possibly go wrong after trying the Paqui One Chip Challenge? This is the challenge where you are supposed to eat one tortilla chip dusted with two of the hottest peppers in the world—the Carolina Reaper and the Naga Viper—and then try to go as long as possible without eating or drinking anything to ease the anguish. Well, over the past year, there have already been reports of kids suffering all sorts of bad effects and even being hospitalized after trying this challenge. And on September 1, Harris Wolobah, a 14-year-old sophomore at Doherty Memorial High School in Massachusetts, tragically died soon after partaking in this challenge.
Now, even though it hasn’t yet been clearly established that the One event lead to Wolobah’s death, the timing has got to make you wonder. In fact, the GoFundMe page set up by Wolobah’s family did say, “On September 1, my aunt Lois’ youngest son, Harris, passed away unexpectedly at the age of 14 from what we suspect to be complications due to the “one chip challenge” (autopsy pending).” Basically, that day, Wolobah visited the school’s nurse’s office complaining about not feeling well and showed the nurse a picture of the one thing that he had just consumed: one of the Paqui chips. That’s according to reporting from Rebecca Carballo and Remy Tumin for the New York Times. Wolobah felt so ill that he ending up leaving school early with his parents. After returning home, Wolobah’s condition continued to deteriorate to the point where he stopped breathing, was rushed to the hospital, and eventually died.
Again, the cause of Wolobah death has yet to be firmly established, pending an autopsy. But there are already plenty of videos on social media of people shaking, sweating profusely, gasping, begging for water, and otherwise looking very, very uncomfortable after eating the very, very spicy chip. The Paqui website used to ask people to see “How long can you last before you spiral out,” after eating the chip and then to post their hot takes on social media. Although, such statements have since been removed from their website, searching for the hashtag #onechipchallenge on TikTok will return scores of videos showing people trying this one chip that sells for $9.99 and then visibly suffering more than one type of agony. Such videos have already garnered over two billion views on TikTok in total. So, the challenge is that this challenge seems to be continuing.
This is another situation where it’s important to listen to your body. If your body is reacting very badly to something then that should be a hint that it is not good for you. Although spicy food is part of many different cuisines around the world and in many cases won’t result in much more than a feeling of warmth and perhaps some sweating, pretty much anything in excess is bad. The Carolina Reaper and the Naga Viper are not you run-of-the-mill peppers that will lead to no more than a bit of a tingle. These are seriously hot peppers.
The hot from such hot chili peppers does not mean that the peppers have actually been heated to a high temperature. Rather what’s bringing the heat is a chemical compound called capsaicin found in such peppers. This chemical can bind to TRPV1 pain receptors that line your mouth, tongue and various other parts of your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which, in turn, triggers that feeling of heat and pain.
Your body can then mistaken this for being under extreme heat—even though your body temperature doesn’t actually rise to that degree—and as a result do all kinds of things to try to cool down. This includes producing lots of sweat and expanding blood vessels to allow more body heat to dissipate through the skin. That’s why you can get that red, flushed appearance when eating spicy food. Your body may also essentially say, “What is this? Get this out of here!” And since your body doesn’t have a great GPS in place to specifically identify where the capsaicin is, it can try to expel the capsaicin in a rather disordered, let’s-just-try-everything-everywhere way. This entails increasing the production of mucus, saliva, tear, and other fluids throughout your body. That’s why very spicy food can make you tear up, drool, and have a runny nose.
The effects can progress down your GI tract as the capsaicin makes it way down there. The initial reactions are typically in your mouth and throat, causing them to swell, perhaps even to the point where it gets difficult to breathe. As the capsaicin moves from your mouth down through your esophagus, you can develop burning sensations in your chest. Next after the esophagus comes the stomach, where even more reactions can occur. Now, contrary to a popular belief, capsaicin won’t cause stomach ulcers, but it can lead to cramping and pain in your stomach that can lead to nausea and vomiting. This can exacerbate the symptoms of already existing stomach ulcers and other types of already present damage. The pain doesn’t necessarily end there. It can literally go end to end. When the capsaicin goes through your intestines and out the other end, triggering more TRPV1 pain receptors along the way, your bowel movements can be painful as well.
All of the above are real and not imagined reactions. For example, when your throat feels like it is swelling, it can actually be swelling and closing off your airway. Similarly, vomiting can be very real with the stomach acid going up through your esophagus causing damage along the way. You could see how such reactions when taken more to the extreme could end up being life-threatening. This can especially be the case if you have some underlying medical condition such as heart problem or a gastrointestinal problem like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome, stomach ulcers, gallbladder problems, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Your first inclination when consuming spicy food might be to reach for some water and guzzle it. However, water is not going to help clear away capsaicin, which is an oil-based substance. As the saying goes, oil and water do not mix. In fact, water may even make things worse by spreading the capsaicin further. So, instead of dealing with “heat” in only part of your mouth, water can spread the heat to all of your mouth and throat. A better solution is consume substances such as milk and bread that can basically keep the capsaicin from binding the receptors.
Of course, another way to prevent the effects of spicy food is to not consume the food in the first place. Sure, there is evidence that eating spicy foods may be associated with positive health benefits such as lower cholesterol, weight loss via decreased appetite and increased metabolism, reduced acid production in the stomach, decreased pain from chronic conditions, improvement in skin conditions like atopic dermatitis and psoriasis and even cancer prevention. However, this doesn’t necessarily apply to very, very spicy things. And as indicated earlier, there are real risks of consuming something that is very, very spicy.
This One Chip Challenge is yet another reminder that just because someone challenges you to do something, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is safe to do. There’s very little to gain from completing such a challenge except for maybe the entertainment of others. At the same time, while many people can get through challenge without permanent damage, there can be the risk of more serious problems, really serious problems. And that’s one reason why One such thing may not be worth doing.