On the surface, Marc Fennell‘s new podcast, It Burns, is all about the race to grow the world’s hottest chilli, but where it ends up taking you is far beyond anything you’ll see coming. Among the more interesting questions raised, it explores why people choose to put themselves through the intense burn of ultra hot chillies in the first place.

There are two main sides to the chilli world: there are Chilli-Heads,” who get their kicks from eating chillies and enduring the heat – some even film the carnage for YouTube videos – and then there are the growers who are constantly battling to produce the world’s hottest chillies. Surprisingly, the latter is absolutely drenched in controversy.

I won’t delve too far into that last point because I don’t wanna spoil it, but I’ll lightly touch on one of the more interesting auxiliary topics: why the fuck anyone would want to torture themselves with these demon peppers.

As it turns out, the answer to that question is pretty complex, and the heavier side of the subject often deals with things like self-harm, but for the most part, there is a weird pleasure that can be derived from such intense pain.

“There are a group of people who are after the pain in itself,” psychiatrist, author, and broadcaster, Raj Persaud, told Marc. There’s a certain “endorphin high that comes out of repeated self-harming, or would come out of repeated eating of hot chillies, maybe in the long run, the buzz. So there’s pain and pleasure that’s part of the sadomasochistic, for example, psychology.”

Of course, that statement applies more to those who really like to put their bodies through some shit, but in terms of liking spicy food on a milder scale, it comes down to the chemical capsaicin, which is where the heat in chillies comes from. Capsaicin triggers the release of endorphins, which make you feel good. In other words, chillies can make you feel kinda high.

Marc speaks to one bloke in particular who has made a living out of devouring hot chillies on YouTube, and you may already be familiar with some of his videos. His name is Ted Barrus – or The Fire Breathing Idiot – and he once smoked a Carolina Reaper through a bong. As you’d imagine, it doesn’t look very nice.

“Psychiatrists are concerned that this type of behaviour might fall into the realm of what we would call self-harming, and part of the psychology of self-harm is sometimes the audience aspect,” Persaud said. “So psychiatrists are very interested in the notion of the whole chilli competitive eating as a performance with an audience.”

That’s honestly just the surface of It Burns. It’s so full of weird twists and turns that I binged the entire five episodes in one go during a road trip. If you’re keen on having a listen, you can do so right here via Audible.

Image: Hot Ones / First We Feast