“I’m going to keep on working while we talk,” says Ed Currie, the founder and brains behind PuckerButt Pepper Company.
Currie is a busy man. He runs his entire company out of a small storefront in Fort Mill, South Carolina, and sells everything from seeds to pepper mash and hot sauce to more than 95 countries around the world. Currie -- who’s rightfully earned the nickname Smokin’ Ed -- is most famous for creating the Carolina Reaper, which is currently the spiciest commercially-available pepper. With an average of 1,641,000 Scoville heat units (SHU), it also holds the Guinness World Record for Hottest Chili Pepper in the world. For comparison, a jalapeño’s range tops out at a measly 8,000 SHU, and the previous record holder -- the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T -- has 1.46 million SHUs at its very hottest.
Currie has been into hot peppers for decades. The 55-year-old from West Bloomfield Township, Michigan first got into chiles when he went away to the University of Michigan for school, mostly as a way to stay healthy as raucous partying became a way of life.
“I was studying indigenous populations around the equator,” he says. “One of the things they all had in common is they don’t have heart disease or cancer. And one of the things they all had in common was capsicums at just about every meal and in their water. Originally, it was: How can I do something about cancer and heart disease? But really, it was: How could I keep on partying?”
Multiple studies have shown that capsaicin -- the active compound inside chile peppers that produces a burning sensation when it comes into contact with tissue -- does have anticancer properties. In very simple terms, capsaicin causes certain cancer cells to undergo apoptosis, or programmed cell death. Basically, studies show that hot peppers have the power to make cancer cells self-destruct. But like many holistic remedies, the evidence behind the cancer-fighting properties of capsaicin isn’t solid enough to use it for actual medical treatment. But there’s definitely enough information there to strongly suggest that spicy food, is in fact, good for you.
Most people don’t get into super hot peppers for the health benefits. Some people indulge in peppers akin to the Reaper for the thrill. Others do it to one-up their friends, even if it makes them feel terrible afterward. Currie fits into a third group, one that he calls the addicts.
“Addicts don’t understand that they’re doing it for the buzz,” he says. “A lot of people in recovery do a lot of stupid hot stuff. They say ‘it makes my food better,’ but they’re getting high. They just don't realize it.”
We know that the human tongue is equipped with taste buds. These receptors identify the five elements of taste -- salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami -- and are responsible for making food taste either pleasant or offensive. Notice that there are no taste buds incidental to spice. Spiciness is a sensation rather than a flavor. The compounds in capsaicin sends a message to your brain and tricks it into thinking you’re being burned. In turn, the brain responds by releasing endorphins (the body’s natural way of relieving pain) and dopamine. Together, these create a euphoric feeling that many would describe as “high.”
“One of the coworkers who’s with me right now, Derrick, me and him made a tincture last Thursday,” Currie says. “And that was so frickin’ hot that when we tried it, both of us were miserable. But then we got a lot of work done because we were both high as kites for about two hours. And that’s just part of what happens.”