I’ve always had a thing for spicy food. I think it comes from my family, which used jalapeño peppers at the dinner table like some people use salt or ketchup and has laughed for years about the time my younger brother cried after eating a pepper that was too hot. Sure, he was probably only eight at the time, but that was no excuse. He’s in his thirties now, but rarely does a family gathering go by without that story coming up in between discussions about whose home-grown peppers are the hottest this year. We love our peppers. And making fun of my brother. But mainly peppers.
Over the last few years, however, it’s become obvious that we’re amateurs when it comes to hot peppers. Jalapeños are fine, but to real chili pepper farmers, they’re more like dessert toppings when compared to the so-called “superhots” at the other end of the heat spectrum.
To give you an idea of what we’re dealing with, the heat of chili peppers is measured in Scoville heat units (SHU), named after Wilber Scoville, a pharmacist who came up with the test method more than a century ago. Bell peppers measure zero on the scale, while jalapeños come in at around 5,000. Habañeros and Scotch bonnet peppers used to be some of the hottest around, ranging from 100,000 to 350,000 SHU. Until 2007, the Guinness Book of World Records considered the Red Savina habañero, which topped out at about 580,000 SHU, the hottest pepper in the world.
Things got interesting when the bhut jolokia pepper, or ghost pepper, was discovered in India. It blew away the previous record with readings of over one million SHU. Within only a few years, the crown changed hands a number of times as growers produced peppers exceeding one million SHU with formidable names like the Infinity chili or the Naga Viper.
Today, the title of hottest pepper is under dispute. Guinness says it’s the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper at 1.4 million SHU, while the Chili Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University points to the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, which it says has topped out at more than two million SHU. Meanwhile, South Carolina grower Ed Currie claims his Carolina Reaper pepper is even hotter. It’s worth noting that levels this high are similar to those of a lower-end pepper spray.
The reason for this hot pepper arms race is simple: spicy foods are big business. Hot sauce production is a billion-dollar industry and, in 2012, market analyst IBISWorld called it one of the top 10 fastest-growing industries in the United States. Hotter peppers mean hotter sauce, which means more sales from people who just have to sample “the world’s hottest.” While hot sauce lunatics try top each other in their quest to bottle liquid fire, on the more edible end of the scale, spicy has taken over just about anywhere you look, with restaurant menus and supermarket shelves boasting jalapeño-this and habañero-that.
Probably the trendiest of the hot sauces is sriracha, which is actually only about half as spicy as a jalapeño. But what it lacks in heat, it makes up for in popularity—especially the most well-known version made by Huy Fong Foods, famous for its green-capped, rooster-emblazoned bottle. People love their “rooster sauce.” Last year, Huy Fong reportedly sold more than $60 million worth of the stuff and has seen revenue jump 20% every year, based entirely on word of mouth from fans. This explains why the hot-sauce-loving world panicked in late October at the news that Huy Fong might have to cease sriracha production at its main factory in Irwindale, Calif.
Citing complaints from nearby residents that pungent chili pepper fumes were irritating their eyes and throats and causing headaches, city officials sued to immediately shut down production until the company could find a way to block the smell. A Los Angeles County judge denied the request for a temporary restraining order and set a hearing for mid-November to resolve the dispute.
For hot sauce makers like Huy Fong, the case is a lesson about the perils of success. The hot sauce boom may be great for producers, but as they ramp up production to meet rising demand, they have to remember that potential risks—including environmental impact issues—are also magnified. Both inside the factory and out, safety becomes even more important when you’re dealing with a product that can basically be weaponized in high enough concentrations. Ultimately, being too popular is probably a good problem to have. But like a good hot sauce burn, sometimes even popularity can make you break out in a sweat.