A few months ago, Ed Currie found himself lying down in the pouring rain in a state of agony. His heart was beating fast. His arms were numb, and his mouth felt like it was on fire.
CURRIE: The heat pain lasted for about two hours. And then the cramps set in. And that lasted for about four more — to the point where I just couldn’t even move, the cramps hurt so bad.
Currie had brought this suffering upon himself. He had just tasted the fruit of his own labor: a hybrid chili pepper, grown on his farm in South Carolina.
CURRIE: It’s about the size of a golf ball. It’s covered in bumps and spikes. And it just looks like an apple that has gone through a Frankenstein. The oil gives it kind of a yellowish, phlegmy tinge. And it — it’s just a brutal pepper. It’s ugly.
This little nugget of pure torture is called Pepper X. It’s up to 1,000 times hotter than a jalapeño, and its kick is more powerful than most brands of police-grade pepper spray. It recently set a Guinness World Record for the hottest chili pepper ever measured in a lab. For Currie, Pepper X is the culmination of more than 20 years of cross-breeding. Peppers aren’t just his hobby — they’re his livelihood. And the hotter they are, the better for business.
CURRIE: By making things hotter, we can produce products that are in your grocery store right now — at a cheaper cost. It’s about economies of scale.
For the Freakonomics Radio Network, this is The Economics of Everyday Things. I’m Zachary Crockett. Today: superhot chili peppers.
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Before Ed Currie was growing hot peppers, he was on a path to self-destruction.
CURRIE: I was a big, fat, sloppy drunk pig. I was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, drinking all day long — straight liquor from, you know, probably five in the morning, all the way through until about midnight. And doing whatever drugs I could get my hands on.
As he tells it, one day in 1982 he ventured into a Vietnamese restaurant in Michigan, where he was living at the time, and asked for the spiciest food they had. The peppers they served him gave him an unexpected rush.
CURRIE: The buzz I got from eating this super-hot stuff, you know, the endorphin rush — that got me started on my journey.
Currie started chasing a new high: the high of spicy chili peppers.
CURRIE: I was writing letters to all these different government agencies around the world saying, “I’d like some pepper seeds.” You know? “I’m studying peppers.” And they’d send letters back. Different peppers from India, different peppers from the Middle East and Africa, stuff from South America and Central America, and the islands.
Currie eventually took a job in finance. But growing peppers with all those seeds was his true passion. And in his circle of friends, he became known as a culinary sadist.
CURRIE: The running joke was, “If Ed says, ‘Try this’ — don’t do it!”
Thousands of years ago, chilis were a staple of food and medicine throughout Central and South America. After Christopher Columbus took seeds back to Europe at the end of the 15th century, peppers spread around the world. And what people liked about them was always their kick.
WALKER: It’s the only truly healthy addiction that I can think of. When you eat peppers you’re hurting yourself. And the body naturally reacts to that by producing endorphins.
That’s Stephanie Walker. She’s a professor at New Mexico State University who has studied chili peppers for more than 35 years. She says there’s a common misconception that the heat in peppers comes from the seeds. But it actually comes mostly from chemicals stored in the placenta — that white-ish core that’s inside of the pepper.
WALKER: It’s a very unique set of chemicals known as the capsaicinoids. And depending on the type of pepper and how hot it is, they’re going to have different complements of these capsaicinoids.
There are six different capsaicinoids in total — but the one that tends to impart the most heat is simply called capsaicin. When you eat a pepper, this capsaicin binds to receptors in your mouth. And those receptors send a signal to your brain that basically says, “What the hell are you doing?!”
WALKER: It’s the same receptors in our mouth that sense thermal heat. So you’re actually getting the same sensation as if you burn yourself eating some very hot soup or very hot coffee.
Researchers measure this heat in something called Scoville heat units. You might see that term on bottles of hot sauce, or packets of seeds. It’s a way to quantify just how much capsaicin is in a pepper. The peppers in your grocery store have quite a wide range.
WALKER: A jalapeno is typically around 5,000 Scoville heat units, although that can be lower or higher depending on the environmental conditions. A typical habanero pepper is about 300,000 Scoville heat units.
For many years, experts thought that 500,000 Scoville heat units was about as hot as a pepper could possibly get. But in 2001, one of Walker’s colleagues at New Mexico State University stumbled across a pepper in India called the Bhut Jolokia. It was so hot that it would later be used by India’s military to make non-lethal hand grenades. To the Western world, it became known as the Ghost Pepper.
WALKER: That was more than a million Scoville Heat units. He got the Guinness Book of World Records for the hottest Pepper and then let the games begin.
After the ghost pepper got the world’s attention, breeders — some professionals, others hobbyists — began to compete for the title of world’s hottest pepper. Records were set and broken, again and again — sometimes just months later. Peppers with names like the Infinity Chile, the Naga Viper, and the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pushed heat levels into the realm of torture. This new wave of peppers was given a name: Super hots.
WALKER: So, a super hot is a type of pepper, the general category above 1 million Scoville heat units. definitely too hot for many people, but there is a segment of the population that just really loves these super hot, extremely high Scoville heat unit peppers.
That includes Ed Currie.
CURRIE: I get a buzz from eating peppers. I eat stuff that normal people won’t even go near. I’m getting a huge dopamine drop from, you know, eating really super-hot stuff.
For most of the 1980s and ‘90s, Currie’s peppers took a backseat to his drinking problem.
CURRIE: I was more interested in getting to the bar at lunchtime and getting out of work and going to the bar at dinnertime.
But by the early 2000s, he had gone through rehab. He worked in a video store, a butcher shop. And eventually, he was pulled back into the world of chili peppers … by love.
CURRIE: I saw a woman, and every time I saw her, you know, my stomach felt sick, and my chest felt tight. So, I whipped up some peach mango salsa for this event we were having. And she said, “Who made the salsa?” And we started talking. She moved me into her house, like four months later. And within two weeks of that, I had 1,100 plants growing in her yard.
Currie sold hot sauce and salsa at farmer’s markets in South Carolina. The reaction was so good that he decided to make his business official.
CURRIE: It became the PuckerButt Pepper Company. Because everybody said when they ate my stuff it made their butt pucker, you know?
Currie’s pepper growing operation eventually expanded to a dedicated farm. He grew dozens of different types of peppers from all over the world, and cross-bred his own varieties by transferring pollen between peppers.
CURRIE: I wasn’t looking to make something hot, but it turned out that these breeds I was doing were getting hotter and hotter and hotter because of the parents that I was using in the breeds.
One of these new breeds, in particular, stood out. He called it “the Carolina Reaper.”
CURRIE: The first time I had it, it knocked me to my knees, you know? It was — it was blazing hot. It was the first time I felt like I was high after I got clean.
Currie knew he had something special on his hands. So, in 2013, he took it to a local university and had it tested. It clocked in at an average of 1.64 million Scoville heat units. That was a new world record. And it stood for the next 10 years.
So, what exactly is a world-record-setting pepper worth? That’s coming up.
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There’s never been a better time to grow the world’s hottest peppers. For starters, there’s a thriving community of superhot pepper enthusiasts who call themselves “chiliheads.” They convene in Facebook groups with names like “Pepper Freaks;” they make viral videos of themselves crying after eating peppers; and they attend pepper eating contests, where competitors with nicknames like “Iron Guts” and “Atomik Menace” choke down hundreds of superhots in one sitting.
CURRIE: On all the pepper groups, the people who supposedly eat super-hot stuff there’s maybe 50 to 100,000 people worldwide.
That might not seem like enough people to support farmers like Ed Currie. Fortunately, there’s another market for their peppers: The $3 billion dollar hot sauce business. When manufacturers make sauces, they start with a concoction called mash — it’s basically diced peppers and salt. And on their end, there’s a business case for buying mash made with the hottest peppers in the world.
CURRIE: With the very hot stuff, there’s an economy of scale. So, you can use just a little bit — get the flavor, get the heat. They figure out that they can switch, you know, one five-gallon bucket of Carolina Reaper for 10 55-gallon drums of salt mash and get the same heat profile.
Currie’s company, PuckerButt, sells mash wholesale to more than 100 companies. It also produces its own line of hot sauces, and helps other brands develop them, too. One of the more well-known entities that Currie works with is Hot Ones. It’s a popular YouTube show, where celebrities get interviewed while eating increasingly spicy hot wings.
CURRIE: We make their mildest sauces, and we make their hottest sauces. You know, there’s recipes that I came up with that we manufacture, and their label goes on it. And they sell it all over the world.
To produce all of this sauce, Currie now runs more than 100 acres of pepper farmland in South Carolina, and he grows nearly 8,000 varieties of peppers. He says PuckerButt isn’t quite at the top of the hot sauce kingdom — but it’s up there.
CURRIE: We’re probably the largest small tier, you know, middle tier hot sauce maker in the country. I mean, there’s the big boys, like Tabasco and Frank’s and, you know, Cholula. The step below them, we’re probably the biggest.
Hot sauce isn’t the only market for hot peppers. Currie also sells pepper seeds that end up at Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Walmarts all over the country. The margins on those seeds are so good that one food historian says hot chili peppers have the potential to rival marijuana as the highest-grossing crop, per acre.
Altogether, Currie says PuckerButt now brings in north of $5 million in sales a year. It’s a lucrative business — and that means that Currie has to be very protective of his creations. You can get a patent on a novel plant variety — but it can cost upwards of $25,000. And even with legal protection, Stephanie Walker says it’s hard to prevent theft.
WALKER: After you patent it, you have to have the legal muscle to protect it. And that can be a big problem for a small scale breeder. If you’re selling the peppers with seed intact, and you haven’t heated them or killed the seed in any way inside, you can easily get a viable seed from red chili that’s just been naturally dried.
After Currie set a world record with his Carolina Reaper pepper, he says his peppers began showing up in dozens of products without authorization.
CURRIE: You know companies do what they do. And essentially, when we reached out to them, they all said, “Sue us.” And they thought they could out-sue me — to the point where some companies took us to court to try to get my trademarks revoked.
One product that used the Carolina Reaper name was the Paqui One Chip challenge. It was a little, coffin-shaped box containing a single, extremely spicy chip — and eating one became a viral challenge for kids on the internet. In September 2023, a 14-year-old boy died after partaking in the challenge, and the product was taken off the market. Currie had originally partnered with Paqui. But at the time of this incident, he says the Carolina Reaper seasoning the company promoted was no longer provided by PuckerButt. Paqui did not respond to our request for comment.
Recently, Currie broke his own world record with a new pepper. He calls it “Pepper X.” At just under 2.7 million Scoville Heat Units, it has to be handled with gloves. This time around, Currie intends to protect his intellectual property.
CURRIE: I didn’t listen to the lawyers when I released the seeds for the Carolina Reaper. I was trying to get some money in the bank. But I listen to the lawyers now. We’re going through a process with some universities to patent the pepper. And so, everything is locked down before we release it to the rest of the world. I want to protect my children, okay? Because this is their legacy.
But for Currie, peppers aren’t just a legacy. They’re a way of life.
CURRIE: You’re either going to fight this and go through the pain and get to the next side, or you’re going to run away and only feel the pain. You know?
After eating Pepper X for the first time, lying down in the rain, and enduring stomach cramps for four hours, there was only one thing that Ed Currie wanted to do.
CURRIE: I ate more peppers at dinner that night because I’m an idiot.
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For The Economics of Everyday Things, I’m Zachary Crockett. This episode was produced by Sarah Lilley and mixed by Jeremy Johnston. We had help from Daniel Moritz-Rabson.
CROCKETT: Have you ever accidentally touched your eye or — or peed after handling a pepper?
CURRIE: I’ve done both on multiple occasions, every week. And it’s — it’s not a pleasant experience.
- “Pepper X Dethrones Carolina Reaper as World’s Hottest Chili Pepper,” by Sanj Atwal (Guinness World Records, 2023).
- “The Shocking, Stupendous Rise of Superhot Chillies: ‘The Stomach Cramps Can Last for 14 Hours,’” by Tim Dowling (The Guardian, 2023).
- “14-Year-Old Dies After Trying The Paqui ‘One Chip Challenge,’” by Bruce Y. Lee (Forbes, 2023).
- “Beyond Neuronal Heat Sensing: Diversity of TRPV1 Heat-Capsaicin Receptor-Channel Functions,” by Yaroslav M. Shuba (Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience, 2021).
- “Training Your Tongue to Love Spicy Food Benefits More Than Your Taste Buds,” by Maddie Oatman (Mother Jones, 2019).
- “Fire-Eaters,” by Lauren Collins (The New Yorker, 2013).
- “The Arms Race to Grow World’s Hottest Pepper Goes Nuclear,” by Spencer Jakab (The Wall Street Journal, 2013).