South Carolina pepper expert Ed Currie has crossbred a new type of pepper that’s three times spicier than the Carolina Reaper, the previous record-holder for the world’s hottest chili pepper. Currie—who also developed the Carolina Reaper in 2013—revealed the new Pepper X and accepted the Guiness World Record for it on an episode of the YouTube series "Hot Ones" earlier this week.
Currie describes his creation as providing “immediate, brutal heat,” reports Jeffrey Collins of the Associated Press.
“I was feeling the heat for three-and-a-half hours. Then the cramps came,” Currie tells the publication. “Those cramps are horrible. I was laid out flat on a marble wall for approximately an hour in the rain, groaning in pain.”
Spiciness—or pepper heat—is measured using the Scoville scale and recorded in units called Scoville heat units (SHU). The units are based on levels of a chemical compound called capsaicin, the main ingredient that makes chili peppers hot. Pure capsaicin has a measurement of 16 million SHU while bell peppers, which contain no spice, measure at 0 SHU. Pepper X measures in at an average of 2.69 million units, per Guiness World Records. In comparison, standard pepper spray averages 1 million SHU, while bear spray is advertised around 3 million SHU. The Carolina Reaper measures about 1.64 million SHU.
“But that scale’s logarithmic, so [Pepper X is] more like three times hotter than a Reaper,” Currie explains on the show.
American pharmacologist Wilbur Scoville came up with the Scoville scale in 1912. At the time, he relied on a panel of tasters to dilute a chili sample down with sugar syrup until the spice was subjectively undetectable. The numbers in the scale represented the amount of times the concentration needed to be diluted to reach no spice. Today, chili pungency is measured using high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), a method that measures the capsaicin concentration directly. This value is then converted into Scoville heat units.
Capsaicin works by essentially tricking our brain into thinking we are in danger. After biting into a spicy pepper, the chemical activates a heat-sensing receptor called TRPV1 in our body. This receptor alerts our brain of the perceived change in temperature, which responds by sending a jolt of pain to our body, reported Kathryn Hulick for Science News Explores in 2016. The mechanism is similar to what happens when we touch a hot stove, although we are not actually being burned. Then, our body tries to cool itself down.
“One way our body does this is by sweating and another way is by breathing fast,” Vivek Kumbhari, director of bariatric endoscopy at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, told Caroline Kee of Buzzfeed News in 2018. “The capsaicin micro-particles will go up into the nose and your body will try to flush it out ... which is why you get a runny nose.”
So far, Currie is only one of five people to consume an entire Pepper X, per the AP. For now, he and his team will not share the seeds of the small, wrinkly pepper until he’s sure his family and workers will benefit from their labor. Per the AP, Currie allowed people to grow the Carolina Reaper without protecting his intellectual property, and his lawyers have since counted 10,000 products that use the Reaper name or other IP without permission.
“Everybody else made their money off the Reaper,” Currie tells the AP. “It’s time for us to reap the benefits of the hard work I do.”
Editor’s Note, October 23, 2023: This story has been updated to correct the name of the previous hottest pepper, the Carolina Reaper.