Last week, an inquest was opened into the case of Andrew Lee, a 33-year-old from Edlington in West Yorkshire who ate a plate of chilli sauce as part of a dare, and died from heart failure the morning after. It isn't yet clear if he had a heart attack or an allergic reaction to the sauce, made with red chillis grown on an allotment (his girlfriend said he had suffered severe itching the evening before he died). But should we be careful when cooking chillis?
"It is possible to have an anaphylactic reaction but it is certainly not common," says dietician Sue Baic. Actually, chillis are believed to have several medicinal qualities - they are thought to increase metabolism, can be used as a painkiller, and people in countries where chillis are widely consumed show lower incidences of heart attacks and strokes. Researchers from Nottingham University found that capsaicin, the "heat" in chilli peppers, could attack tumour cells in the laboratory, though scientists are still a long way off from creating treatments using chilli peppers. However, in Mexico and Thailand, the consumption of large quantities of very hot chillis has been linked with relatively high incidences of stomach cancer.
The hottest chilli in the world is the Naga Jolokia (grown in northern India, it comes in at around a million on the Scoville (SHU) scale, the measurement of a pepper's "heat"). And in 2005 an American company marketed a limited edition chilli food additive made from pure capsaicin, measuring 16m SHU; to buy it you had to sign a legal waiver.
There are some nutritional benefits to natural chilli peppers, though, Baic points out. "Flavouring your food with chilli might mean you use less salt, which is a good thing. Chillis are also high in antioxidants, beta-carotene and vitamin C." But she recommends eating plain rice or yoghurt to counter the too-hot effects of eating chillis - drinking water can make it worse. Is the sweaty, tingling feeling of eating something that is too hot your body's way of telling you to stop? "Possibly. Anything that makes you feel uncomfortable is not a good thing. Moderation is the key."