If you’re a millennial or younger, it seems perfectly normal to douse your Chipotle with salsa, and to devour a basket of Buffalo wings during the playoffs.

Normal today, yes. Though not in past.

Pep and kick in things beyond Mexican food was not happening in the days of your grandma.

Sriracha wasn’t even around in her day.

Now, seemingly everything is spicy.

If you compare salsa vs. ketchup sales, the latter officially lost the battle in 1992 according to The New York Times. (1)

Hellmann’s Mayonnaise still likes to claim number one, but that’s based on dollar volume by a condiment brand, not a whole category.

That same year ketchup was dethroned, Jerry Seinfeld explained the reason for this in the 43rd episode of his show…

43rd episode of Seinfeld about why salsa is the number on condiment

Maybe. Or maybe it’s the changing cultural makeup of America.

Whatever the case, if salsa beats ketchup, then where does that leave hot sauce?

Its rank is less clear.

The ketchup and mayo markets are monopolized by a couple brands. Salsa is more diverse but not nearly as much as hot sauce. For that category, you have dozens of recognizable brands, along with hundreds of niche players.

Unlike the publicly-traded Kraft-Heinz and Unilever, who owns Hellmann’s, the hot sauce industry largely consists of privately-held companies.

The bestselling Tabasco (McIlhenny Company) and the original sriracha (Huy Fong Foods) are not public and don’t disclose sales data. You won’t find stock tickers for Louisiana Hot Sauce Co., Dave’s Insanity, and most of your other favorite brands.

By some estimates, total hot sauce sales in the U.S. are already higher than ketchup. If not, they soon will be. Right now, sales are at an estimated $1.4 billion annual run-rate and that number is expected to be 20% higher by 2022. (2)

Sweating and heartburn from eating too much hot sauce are obvious reactions. The scariest side effect is something you would never expect and it has to do with the food safety laws being stuck in the past.

Back in the day, it was a niche condiment. Those who ate it were a much smaller slice of the population. The serving size was trivial.

Tabasco was marketed as the “one drop” wonder.

Eventually it became “a few good drops.”

vintage magazine ads for Tabasco sauce

Now it’s measured in spoonfuls!

Some people are using 1/5th of a bottle per meal, perhaps even someone here at Superfoodly.

There are both pros and cons of eating hot sauce. They’re a superfood condiment if you buy the right ones.

If you buy the wrong ones, you may be exposing yourself to dangerous levels of a toxic heavy metal.

To be clear, Tabasco is not one of the brands we’re about to bad mouth. Before we do that, let’s review all the good stuff.

Health benefits of hot sauce

  • Made with antioxidant-rich chili peppers
  • Over 95% fewer calories than mayo per serving
  • Unlike ketchup, hot sauce is sugar-free
  • Boosts metabolism and fat burning
  • Lutein and zeaxanthin support healthy vision
  • Triggers production of endorphins which block pain
  • Natural nasal expectorant for colds, flu, and allergies
  • May reduce joint inflammation and arthritic pain
  • May lower cholesterol levels
  • May support liver health
  • Studied for antiproliferative effects in colon cancer
  • Fermented hot sauce contains probiotics
  • Vegan
  • Fat free
  • Gluten free
  • Dairy free
  • Low allergy risk

Metabolism and dieting

Most major brands list zero calories per serving. Technically there are a few, but FDA labeling laws allow rounding to zero for numbers below 5. Regardless, this is a condiment you can eat to your heart’s desire while still following a weight loss regimen. (3)

Several studies have concluded that hot sauce good is for your metabolism. It appears to increase energy expenditure (i.e. boost metabolism). This appears to include the burning of brown adipose fat tissue, which is one cause of belly fat. Whether this temporary effect helps with long term weight loss remains unknown. (4) (5)

While there is brown fat behind the abdominal muscle, most of it is in other places of the body, including your shoulders and neck, which can give the appearance of a fat neck. So really, reduction in either area is desired! (6)

Antioxidants

Habanero, ghost, and other chili peppers are a good source of vitamin C, however the heat of pasteurization and cooking will destroy that. Still, there are other beneficial phytonutrients like lutein and zeaxanthin which some research suggests may help protect against age-related macular degeneration (AMD). (7)

spice shelf with black peppercorn, red cayenne pepper, and garlic powderORAC value testing to report the antioxidant activity of specific hot sauce recipes and brands has not been done. Based on testing of the peppers and spices used, this condiment likely has respectable antioxidant activity. In vitro (lab research) has reported the following ORAC values:

  • dried Szechuan pepper = 118,400
  • white pepper spice = 40,700
  • black pepper spice = 34,053
  • red cayenne pepper spice = 19,671
  • dried jalapeno = 8,250

Cayenne peppers are the the starring ingredient in Frank’s Red Hot, Tapatio, and many other brands. All of the spicy red peppers varieties will rank high.

To paint perspective, the numbers for raw green, yellow, orange, and red bell peppers come in between 800 to 1,000 for the same weights.

Freeze-dried acai powder of the same weight comes in at 102,700, a number easily trumped by Szechuan pepper powder.

If you’re addicted to hot sauce, you are still only consuming tiny amounts of the hot peppers relative to say, the amount of bell pepper used in a salad or stir fry. So even though these ingredients are antioxidant rich, you have to consider portion sizes when comparing them to other fruits and veggies.

Inflammation and pain

Prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) is a principal mediator of inflammation in many types of diseases, including osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Animal research has found that the capsaicin in hot peppers inhibits PGE2 in a dose-dependent manner. (8) (9)

What causes the “high” you get from eating hot sauce is the increase in endorphins. The peppers’ capsaicin creates a burning sensation and in response, your body ramps up production of this neurotransmitter to reduce pain. Scientists suspect this might be why some people claim hot sauce helps their knee pain, back pain, and other aching joints. (10)

Cardiovascular

Lowering of cholesterol and triglycerides from capsaicin has been seen in animal research. (11)

Capsaicin interacts with a special type of protein located on the surface of nerve cells called TRPV1.

Heat also activates TRPV1 and that’s why hot sauce feels hot… even though there’s no real change in temperature taking place.

Basically, your body is too stupid to know the difference between real heat and the capsaicin molecule found in chili peppers, because both activate TRPV1.

It turns out that might be desirable. Beneficial effects have been observed when the TRPV1 is activated in certain parts of the body, such as the circulatory system.

With the exception of the high sodium in some brands, the evidence suggests that hot sauce is good for your heart. In addition to possibly lowering LDL cholesterol, the capsaicin’s activation of TRPV1 in blood vessels has correlated with lower blood pressure in a hypertensive rat study. (12)

Liver benefits

In rodent models of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), the activation of TRPV1 by capsaicin exerts an antioxidant effect in the liver.

In cultured cells, an inhibitory effect on fibrosis was seen. In acute liver injury models, pathology and function was better in mice treated with capsaicin injections. These findings suggest hot sauce is good for your liver. Human studies will be needed to confirm. (13) (14) (15) (16)

Cancer research

In lab cultured human colon cancer cells, capsaicin derived from hot peppers was found to promote apoptosis (controlled cell death) by activating and stabilizing the p53 tumor suppressor protein. (17)

Other research has suggested that capsaicin might positively influence gene expression that relates to metastasis and angiogenesis (growth of new blood supplies in tumors). (18)

The oncology research to date is very preliminary, though intriguing nonetheless.

To be clear, all of the health benefits discussed so far are not conclusively proven in human trials and therefore as the saying goes, this food should not be used to treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Sinus congestion

box of Kleenex in front of oceanWhat you don’t need clinical studies to prove is the fact that consumption of spicy food can help clear your sinuses, at least temporarily.

That relieved pressure might come in handy when you have a cold or seasonal allergies.

However sometimes this clearing effect can backfire and cause too much of a runny nose.

So those are the pros and next come the cons…

Side effects of hot sauce

  • Acid reflux can cause heart burn, upset stomach, sore throat, nausea, bloating, and difficulty swallowing.
  • Burning sensation can cause profuse sweating, particularly of the forehead.
  • Increased nasal congestion and/or runny nose
  • Increased blood pressure from excess sodium
  • Tooth enamel erosion from acidity
  • Geographic tongue (benign migratory glossitis)
  • Lead poisoning
  • Unknown safety during pregnancy
  • Possibly unsafe during breastfeeding

The most common adverse reactions from eating too much hot sauce are a result of the capsaicin interacting with the TRPV1 on the surface of nerve cells.

You’re not getting “burned” from hot sauce. That is a myth. It just feels like it because capsaicin interacts with the same nerve sensors.

Does cayenne pepper raise body temperature?

Not directly, but it can cause an indirect increase in body temperature. Whether it’s cayenne powder or whole chili peppers like jalapeno, habanero, and ghost, all of these foods are high in capsaicin. This compound activates the TRPV1 proteins on the nerves in the same way that heat does. Since your body thinks it’s hot, reactions like sweating and flushing can result, which may raise your core body temperature slightly. (19)

Since sensitivity to capsaicin varies by individual, not everyone will experience a reaction to the capsaicin in hot sauce and others foods, at least when consumed in moderation. Therefore, not everyone experiences an indirect increase in their body temperature.

For some people the feeling of “heat” from hot sauce is pleasurable, since it triggers the increase in endorphins. For others, body’s reactions to the perceived burning result in unpleasant side effects, including sore throat, heartburn, and digestive issues.

Acidity

In terms of chemically burning your skin or holes in your stomach, those are false accusations. The acidity of hot sauce is typically on par with ketchup, mustard, and jarred pickles. You are far more likely to be chemically burned from drinking pure apple cider vinegar, which has a pH of 3.1 to 5.

flame on gas burner of stoveIt is true that hot sauce can create a burning sensation on your skin and mucous membranes, which may result in itching, redness, swelling, and other reactions which are harmful. The burning sensation you feel is not the same as actual heat from say, a hot iron or stove top.

Some claim that hot sauce isn’t good for your stomachs because it increases the acidity. This is not a rational argument because even more acidic foods like apple cider vinegar are far too weak to alter the pH of gastric juices. If you regurgitate these foods, admittedly they may be more irritating on the esophageal lining.

Just like tomato sauce and other acidic foods, over time it’s possible for hot sauce to cause enamel damage if left on your teeth. Chase your spice buzz with a drink of water or other liquid to prevent this.

Geographic tongue

This is a very real risk and in fact, one man at Superfoodly was diagnosed with it as a teen by a doctor, only to later have the disease “cured” after it was discovered the excess hot sauce was causing it.

Technically known as benign migratory glossitis, geographic tongue is a change in the pattern of the miniature white finger-like projections called papillae. This change can create a map-like appearance on the surface of your tongue.

geographic tongue

This is a rather boring example of what geographic tongue looks like. Sometimes the white pattern really does does look like a complex map!

The good news is that this is a “harmless condition” according to the NIH’s MedlinePlus literature. Even if it causes no known health effects, reducing your intake of spicy foods so your tongue can return to normal is a prudent and wise step to take. (20)

In the case of the sufferer at Superfoodly, his tongue returned to normal after 2-3 months of stopping hot sauce. It’s worth mentioning he was eating very high amounts, as he was literally drinking Melinda’s habanero sauce from the bottle – the equivalence of a tablespoon or two at a time. That was directly on his tongue, undiluted, and it may be a few times daily.

He claimed this “dosage” helped his asthma and given the more recent research on capsaicin possibly suppressing prostaglandins and inflammation, perhaps there is something to that. However this topic is not studied in humans and therefore, this benefit is unproven and may not exist at all.

Is hot sauce safe during pregnancy?

As with many foods, hot sauce has not specifically been studied in pregnant women sufficiently. While there is no reason to suspect it’s dangerous to the developing baby, no one can say for sure.

As far as science knows today, when mothers consume above-average amounts of hot and spicy foods while they are pregnant, there is no increased risk of birth defects, autism, or other unusual physical/mental developments.

This unknown status may be alarming but it is common, as most foods and dietary supplements fall under this same pregnancy classification.

Dangers during breastfeeding

mother breastfeedingTaking capsicum by mouth in any form, whether as a spice, sauce, or supplement, may be linked to skin problems (dermatitis) in breastfed babies.

There is a case study of two mothers whose babies would experience dermatitis, shortly after the mothers consumed red pepper. These cases involved a baby boy and girl, both of whom were 6 months of age. The mothers had consumed the spice within 15 hours of breastfeeding. (21)

Although this side effect is not conclusively proven, to play it safe, it would be best to greatly limit or avoid hot sauce and spicy foods if you are breastfeeding an infant.

Potential for lead poisoning

What may be the most frightening and unexpected possible side effect of hot sauce is the risk of lead poisoning.

Because this food was previously consumed in minute quantities by only a sliver of the American population, the FDA never instituted lead standards for hot sauce like they did for candies, dried fruit, juice, and numerous other foods.

If some manufacturers were held to the same 0.1 ppm lead standard as candy, their products would be banned for sale and need to be recalled.

A study found that 88% of imported hot sauce brands tested contained detectable levels of lead and a number of them were above 0.1 ppm, which is the maximum limit for candies.

The 25 brands and flavors in the study were purchased in Clark County, Nevada at retail stores. These products were brands that were manufactured in Mexico and South America.

Because there are no enforceable lead limit standards for hot sauce, believe it or not this is believed to be the first investigation done and it didn’t even occur until 2013! (22)

Even though most of the sauces contained some lead, this should not overly concern you.

The fact is that lead and other toxic heavy metals are ubiquitous in the environment. The question is not whether or not they’re in the foods you eat, because they are. Rather it’s how much they contain that is the question.

In the case of these sauces, the levels detected in many are comparable to other common foods. 16% of them (4 out of 25) contained levels of lead which exceeded the the maximum limit set forth for candy.

table showing lead levels in 25 brands of hot sauce

If those 4 hot sauces you see were candies, it would not be legal to sell them. Yet because the laws are so behind on the times, it’s the wild west with this condiment. You can legally sell them in the United States, even with these high levels of lead.

Where was this lead poisoning coming from? That’s unknown. Theories cited by the scientists include:

  • Open-air drying process of the peppers may cause airborne contamination.
  • Machinery used to grind the dried pepper may contain lead.
  • Use of lead arsenate as a pesticide may be taking place in these Latin countries that have looser regulation and oversight.

That last concern is a great reason to buy USDA certified organic hot sauce. The dangers of lead-tainted machinery and open-air drying may also be causing the side effects of chocolate, in regards to their high lead content.

Hot sauce is kind of like Chinese food. You don’t want 100% authentic, but rather an Americanized take on it.

Bufalo Clasica and El Pato (the brand with the duck on it) are considered “real” authentic Mexican hot sauces, though if these test results are accurate, their lead content exceeds the FDA’s standard set for candy.

This study actually lends support for buying the “non-authentic” and American brands like Tabasco, Texas Pete’s, Crystal, and Frank’s hot sauce.

Of course, many imported brands from Mexico, Chili, and elsewhere are perfectly safe to eat. Although not tested in this study, there have been no concerns raised about Cholula, which is one of the most popular brands and it’s from Mexico. Ditto for many others.

It’s also worth noting that many US-based manufacturers import their peppers and/or powdered spices.

The bottom line is that you should probably give extra scrutiny to unknown imported brands. Especially those whose labels are not in English and are being sold at non-traditional retailers, such as Latin grocers.

This scrutiny is even more important for pregnant women, since infants are much more susceptible to developmental damage from lead toxicity.

The verdict

fresh and dry red chili peppers on cutting boardThere are risks of eating too much hot sauce, though most are harmless and short-lived such as heartburn and sweating profusely.

Habanero, scorpion, and ghost pepper hot sauces are high on the Scoville scale and should be avoided if you are sensitive to spicy foods.

Hatch green, serrano, jalapeno, and chipotle hot sauces are often milder and safer for the average person.

What may be the most harmful side effect of hot sauce, which is lead poisoning, can be avoided by choosing trustworthy and well-known brands.

Assuming you are consuming non-tainted hot sauces and they’re not too spicy for you, this is a healthy food that is good for you for in multiple ways. With nearly no calories, it’s an ideal condiment for weight loss. It works for most diets since it’s vegan, gluten free, dairy free, and paleo friendly.

Antioxidant content, including various carotenoids, are beneficial for you. The research about the capsaicin in hot sauce and how that might help inflammation, heart, liver, and more remains unproven yet promising.

Be on the lookout for the sodium content, which is a lurking danger in both domestic and imported brands.

Frank’s Red Hot and Louisiana are high, with 190 and 200 mg of sodium per teaspoon, respectively. Many of the organic hot sauces are just as bad for you too. Arizona Pepper by Harvest Foods touts being organic and non-GMO yet it has 180 mg of unhealthy sodium per serving.

Here is a comprehensive list of low and no sodium hot sauces. An excellent brand with 0 mg per teaspoon is Dave’s Ultimate Insanity and you can get it on Amazon.


These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.