I'm learning how to cook, which has been an adventure. The other night, after an encounter with some particularly spicy Italian sausage combined with even spicier barbecue sauce, my roommates and I found ourselves wondering if eating spicy foods could kill you. I mean, it can certainly cause intense pain and chest tightness; so can too much spicy food kill you?
Well, according to everything I could find on the internet, probably not. I could only dig up a few cases where pepper killed and none of them were typical. In one, a four-year-old with pica (a penchant for eating things that aren't necessarily nutritious) breathed pepper in and experienced respiratory failure. This medical study documents eight known cases of pepper deaths, seven of them homicides. Other research has shown that in high doses, consuming pepper can be lethal, but even I don't put enough pepper in our food to qualify as a lethal dose. Even spice allergies are generally mild. In fact, spiciness is pretty tame; it doesn't even kill your taste buds, since it registers in the pain sensors on our tongue. Spicy food doesn't even cause ulcers, as we used to think, but it actually can help secrete new stomach lining and help treat them.
Pepper spray is a different beast, though. It's not meant to be lethal (it's often hailed as the best non-deadly defense weapon), but it can be in extreme cases. Earlier this month, a Bel Air man died after police used pepper spray to restrain him after he threatened to kill his family. However, examiners said the effects of the pepper spray were exacerbated by his 550-pound girth and high stress, which led to breathing problems and made the pepper spray lethal. Also, asthmatics and people with intense allergies can experience respiratory problems from pepper spray, which can sometimes result in death.
Overall, though, it looks like spiciness may do more good than harm. They may not kill people, but new research shows that they can help kill cancer cells. Spices can also help kill bacteria and prevent food from spoiling, which explains why some ancient cultures were so fond of piling on the pepper (I'm looking at you, Thailand). All in all, it looks like we ought to rethink the names of the world's hottest peppers "“ Bih Jolokia, which translates to "poison chili pepper" and Bhut Jolokia, which means "ghost chili pepper." Still, with an astronomic 855,000 and 1,001,304 Scoville units respectively (compared to 30,000 for cayenne and 300,000 for the habanero), it doesn't sound like anything I'll be using for salsa anytime soon.