What to know about the 'One Chip Challenge' and extremely spicy foods

One Chip Challenge. Picture: Kirk K/Flickr.com

One Chip Challenge. Picture: Kirk K/Flickr.com

Published Sep 12, 2023


By Jonathan Edwards

Lois Wolobah got a call on Friday from the nurse at her son's high school in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Harris, a high school pupil, had fainted after eating a tortilla chip.

When Wolobah got to the high school, her son showed her an image on his phone of what made him sick - a single "extremely hot tortilla chip" encrusted with seasoning from some of the spiciest chilli peppers in the world, packaged in a coffin-shaped box emblazoned with a snake slithering through the eye of a skull.

A few hours later, Wolobah passed out at home, Lois and her husband, Amos, told WBZ. He was taken to an emergency room, where he died.

Wolobah and her husband are blaming the chip for their son's death and pushing for the product to be banned, they told the TV station.

The state medical examiner is investigating the boy's death and, while his autopsy has been completed, the office does not expect to determine a cause of death for weeks, Tim McGuirk, spokesperson for the state executive office of public safety and security, told The Washington Post in an email.

Paqui, which is owned by Austin-based Amplify Snack Brands, did not respond to a request for comment from The Post.

But in a statement, a spokeswoman with the Hershey Company, which owns Amplify, said that company officials were "deeply saddened by the news report and express our condolences to the family."

On Wednesday, Paqui's website for the "One Chip Challenge" still advertised the product with a label warning people to keep the chip away from children, not to eat it if they're sensitive to spicy foods, to wash their hands after touching the chip, and to seek medical attention if they faint, feel nauseous or have trouble breathing.

But earlier on Wednesday, the company removed language challenging people to hold off as long as possible after consuming the chip before eating or drinking anything to relieve the burning.

The page had asked "How long can you last before you spiral out?" and provided a ranking system ranging from one minute for those who are "harmless" up to an hour, which was reserved for an "apex predator."

Later on Wednesday, options to buy the chip online and locate stores that sold them had disappeared.

What is the 'One Chip Challenge'?

The idea for Paqui's "One Chip Challenge" was born a decade ago when the company's founder, Doug Lyon, met Ed Currie, who invented the Carolina Reaper chilli, Forbes reported in 2016 when the chip was first sold.

During their meeting, Lyon became incapacitated when he tasted powder made from the Carolina Reapers, now the hottest chillies in the world, which led him to decide it would make the "perfect ingredient" for what would become "the world's spiciest chip," Currie told the news outlet.

Three years later, the two started selling what they called "Carolina Reaper Madness" as "the One Chip Challenge," according to the Forbes article.

All of the hallmarks were in place from the beginning: It came as an individually wrapped single tortilla chip in a coffin-shaped box adorned with the Grim Reaper.

In 2018, the Hershey Company bought Paqui's parent company, Amplify Snack Brands, for $1.6 billion, according to PennLive.

Paqui has released seven versions of the "One Chip Challenge," changing the peppers it uses in its seasoning each year.

The internet is intrinsically linked into how the company markets the product, which this year costs $9.99 (about R200) for a chip that can be bought through online retailers like Amazon and at stores, including 7-Eleven and Circle K.

"Fans who are brave enough to face The Reaper should share this year's experience on social media by showing off their blue tongue and tagging @paquichips with the hashtag #OneChipChallenge on Instagram, Twitter and TikTok," Paqui said in a news release announcing its 2022 campaign.

"Fans can spread the heat and dare their friends, enemies, or frenemies to the challenge and see if they too can handle the shock of this year's PAQUI ONE CHIP CHALLENGE."

Has anyone been hurt doing the challenge?

There have been several incidents in which those who've eaten the chip then required medical attention.

In January 2022, three students at a high school in Lodi, California, went to the emergency room after eating the chip, which caused them to vomit and struggle breathing, Chelsea Vongehr, a spokeswoman for the Lodi Unified School District, told The Post. The chips were subsequently banned from the school.

In September 2022, three students at a middle school in Tyler, Texas., went to the hospital because they allegedly suffered "a severe reaction" after eating the chips.

Is spicy food dangerous?

Paqui boasts that this year's challenge chip is encrusted with seasoning made from "two of the hottest peppers currently available," the Carolina Reaper and the Naga Viper.

The two peppers, which at different times both held the Guinness World Record for the hottest pepper, come in at about 2.2 million and 1.3 million Scoville heat units, respectively, dwarfing the humble jalapeño's 2,500 to 8,000 units.

Eating large amounts of capsaicin, the compound found in chilli peppers that makes them spicy, can cause headaches, vomiting, chest pain, stomach aches and diarrhoea, doctor Allan Capin wrote in a Cleveland Clinic article earlier this year. In severe cases, the gastric acid from vomit can burn a hole in the oesophagus.

People who have gastrointestinal issues, are genetically predisposed to capsaicin sensitivity or aren't used to eating spicy foods are at higher risk for experiencing symptoms, Capin wrote.

"Most people aren't used to that level of heat and are going from zero to 100 when they do something like the 'One Chip Challenge,' where you eat an extremely spicy tortilla chip," Capin wrote. "It's like putting a bomb in your stomach if you're not prepared for it."

Why are spicy food challenges popular on the internet?

Teenagers have participated in eating challenges long before the internet, said Jamie Cohen, a media studies professor at Queens College, City University of New York, citing one from his youth in which his peers were urged to chug a gallon of milk without vomiting.

But they didn't have social media to amplify the challenge beyond their friend group or learn about what other groups were doing.

"Now, with social media amplifying it, there's this one-upmanship that is part of the algorithm and part of . . . participatory culture that makes people want to try this and prove to somebody else on the internet they could do it."

Paqui plays into that dynamic with marketing that ranks eaters by how long they can hold off from drinking milk, eating bread or otherwise trying to relieve their pain, Cohen said.

As such, the challenge is not only a competition between a person and the clock, but also other participants doing the challenge and posting their experiences online.

"They know that social media is part of the product itself," Cohen said, "and that's why I actually think this product is quite meta.

“It exists both on the internet and in real life, because I don't think anyone buys this chip . . . without wanting to videotape themselves doing it."