Annually since 2016, the Paqui brand - part of Amplify Snacks, which was acquired by The Hershey Company in 2018 - has ramped up the heat with an ‘intensely thrilling challenge’ designed to push ‘the fearless to their limit’.
On its website, the company says, “In a world filled with ‘flamin’ hot’ options packed with artificial ingredients, Paqui dares to be different.”
The company’s One Chip Challenge dared consumers to eat a single mega-hot chip sold in a coffin-shaped box emblazoned with a skull and viper.
It seemed like ontrend and sales-boosting fun … until it went wrong.
While the producer strongly cautioned the high voltage chip is not for the faint hearted - along with warnings that it is intended for adult consumption only - 14-year old Harris Wolobah was seduced by the One Chip Challenge,
Sadly, the Massachusetts teen died within hours of eating the purple chip on 1 September. The exact cause of death is not yet known and is under investigation by Massachusetts authorities, however, his family has squarely placed the blame on Paqui.
In reaction, the Texas-based producer is pulling the product from US shelves.
In a statement posted on its website, it said, “The Paqui One Chip Challenge is intended for adults only, with clear and prominent labelling highlighting the chip is not for children or anyone sensitive to spicy foods or who has food allergies, is pregnant or has underlying health conditions.
“We have seen an increase in teens and other individuals not heeding these warnings. As a result, while the product continues to adhere to food safety standards, out of abundance of caution, we are actively working with retailers to remove the product from shelves.”
The single-serve one chip challenge product is also being removed for sale on Amazon in Britain, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, but is still available in ‘very limited distribution’ in Canada. eBay said it was also blocking One Chip Challenge listings.
Rise in hellish outcomes
A Paqui spokesperson said the company was “deeply saddened by the death of Harris Wolobah and express our condolences to the family.”
The basketball-loving 10th grader, however, has not been the only one to succumb to the hellish heat scale, with reports are flooding in from around the US that people - particularly teens - have been hospitalised after taking part in the One Chip Challenge.
Worcester County District Attorney Joseph Early Jr. even took to X (formerly Twitter) to urge parent to advise their children “not to partake in this activity. The company warnings state the chips are intended for adult consumption. Other states across the country have seen hospitalisations due to the chip challenge, including teens.”
On the Scoville scale - which quantifies the heat units of a given pepper - the Naga Viper punches in at around 1.4 million Scoville heat units (SHU), while the Carolina Reaper packs in even more fire at 1.7 million SHU. A regular jalapeño, by contrast, only touts between 2,500-8,500 SHU, making the Carolina Reaper about 212 times hotter.
The health risks of eating a Reaper include intense burning, numbness or pain in the mouth and throat. People may also experience sweating, increased heart rate, severe headaches and vomiting. In fact, one case - featured in the Journal of Emergency Medicine - documented such ‘volent retching and vomiting’ from eating hot peppers that the patient tore a hole in his oesophagus.
In a press release, Northeastern University food safety expert and associate teaching professor Darin Detwiler said the Reaper could even lead to death.
The heat comes from the active ingredient in chili peppers called capsaicin.
“The ingredient that causes an extreme spicy reaction could be considered a chemical contaminant,” said Prof Detwiler. While typical adverse reactions to spicy foods include the aggravation of inflammatory bowel disease and gallbladder issues, an overload of capsaicin “could actually put someone in a state similar to a shock and they can potentially go into cardiac arrest if the stimulus is too severe,” he added.
Invincible or powerless?
Prior to the voluntary recall, Paqui’s One Chip Challenge involved waiting as long as possible to drink water after ingesting the spicy tortilla chip, with a rating from ‘powerless’ (those lasting one minute before reaching for relief) to ‘invincible’ or ‘apex predators’ (those who could withstand the heat for up to an hour).
“The only way to prove you’ve dared to take on this year’s #OneChipChallenge is to show off your blue tongue,” said the producer, encouraging audacious snackers to share their experience on social media to “spread the heat and dare friends, enemies or frenemies to see if they, too, can handle the shock.”
While challenges and dares date back generations - swallowing live goldfish was a big fad in the 1930s - the internet has supercharged the movement.
A TikTok video can spread like wildfire, so it’s not surprising that young people will come across it. Social media content is filtered by what users have previously interacted with, so one view will crank up others of similar subject matter.
This can reinforce the dare, and if it appears ‘sensational’ or fun’, will quickly draw in susceptible youngsters. The brain's prefrontal cortex is still developing in young people, making it more likely for them to act on impulse. The blackout challenge, planking, sunburn art, Nyquil chicken and even the tame-sounding cinnamon challenge are some of the tasks that have caught the attention of kids, many with fatal results.
Spicing up the supermarket aisles
Meanwhile, recent polls suggest consumers are spicing up their lives.
A 2022 survey conducted by The Harris Poll found 74% of Americans add hot sauce to their food now and then, while 45% do so regularly. A survey by flavour house Kalsec in 2019 identified a 20% CAGR in hot and spicy product launches over the past decade.
And it’s not just the sauce aisle that’s sizzling, with the snacking sector seeing an influx of flamin’ hot varieties.
According to Frito-Lay, “spicy salty snacks have spiked in popularity in recent years with the category growing 12% in the past four years” - especially among youngers. The snack giant underscored this with results from a survey that revealed 46% of Gen Z (9-24 year olds) love its Cheetos Flamin’ Hot corn snack.
Across the pond, chilli varieties - from ancho to cayenne - are increasingly popular among 70% of Brits, with Glaswegians in Scotland being the biggest chilli lovers.
The trend is being driven by the consumer desire for adventure and exploration. While heat has (generally) always been trend, it has manifested by the spread of global cuisines. Think Phaal Curry from India (recognised as the spiciest dish on the planet), Tom Yum from Thailand, Jamaica’s Jerk Chicken and China’s Huo Guo (with Sichuan pepper oil), among others.
This global presence in the snacking industry is perfectly manifested in Eva Longoria’s directorial debut earlier this year. ‘Flamin’ Hot’ is a feel-good story of how a Mexican American janitor rose through the ranks at Frito-Lay and purportedly was the brains behind the wildly popular and spicy snack.
Richard Montañez “came up with this brilliant idea to put chili on chips for the Hispanic market and today Flamin’ Hot is the No. 1 snack in the world and it’s a multibillion-dollar industry that transcends snacks,” Longoria told the media.
While Montañez’s story has become an inspirational tale of Latino entrepreneurial success, Frito-Lay has disputed claims he created the spicy line. Longoria’s film also hints the possibility of the Flamin’ Hot flavour being developed in the Midwest.
The origins of cultivating chili peppers have been traced to Mexico some 6,000 years ago, but no matter the culture, the endorphin high associated with the consumption of capsaicin will undoubtedly have people around the globe yearning for the spicier side of life for generations to come.
Authors: Ann Arens, Leila Ben-Youssef, et al
The Journal of Emergency Medicine, Volume 51, Issue 6, December 2016, Pages e141-e143
Austin, Texas-headquartered Amplify Snack Brands is a family of brands, including SkinnyPop, Paqui, and Pirate's Booty dedicated to stripping back snacks to simple, premium ingredients. According to the Austin-headquartered company, “we’ve proven that when you start with the right premium ingredients, you don’t need anything extra to make something truly special. In short, our snacks are made with the fewest, cleanest, and simplest ingredients possible to craft the best tasting products.
“We don't want to say that we've set the bar in better-for-you snacking, because the truth is, we're still busy raising it.”