The short answer: no.
The fun answer (that will make you the smartest person at the water cooler today):
On Monday, the Los Angeles County city of Irwindale filed a lawsuit against Huy Fong Foods, the makers of Sriracha hot sauce. Residents of the small town, the L.A. Times reported, said the smell emanating from their neighborhood’s Sriracha plant “is making their eyes water and throats burn.”
The chile used in the sauce, wrote the L.A. Times, is a hybrid jalapeño pepper that is “ground fresh, not cooked or dried,” then blended with garlic, vinegar, salt, and sugar to make the popular thick red paste.
Chiles contain a class of chemicals called capsaicinoids, says Stephanie Walker, New Mexico Extension Vegetable Specialist and chile pepper expert at New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute. “Basically, they’re chemicals produced by pepper fruit that are very irritating to mucous membranes and the skin. It’s the same compounds that are in pepper spray.”
Capsaicinoids cause that burning sensation in your mouth when you eat hot peppers. “It triggers the same pain receptors as when you eat something really hot and burn your tongue,” Walker says. “A lot of people love that.” Why? Because that pain triggers the brain to release endorphins, the body’s natural opiates. “That pain can give people a pleasurable feeling. We think that’s why people eat a lot of hot peppers, almost to the point of getting addicted.”
Capsaicin chemicals are easily aerosolized when the peppers are crushed. That’s what’s going on in Irwindale. The only way to stop the Sriracha plant from pepper spraying the entire town is to add more filters to the pipes that expel the capsaicinoid-laden air. “That way the fumes will be contained inside the plant rather than drifting through the neighborhood,” Walker says.
Chile pepper experts are not aware of any long-term health risks related to sniffing the chemicals found in peppers. Researchers have yet to determine whether breathing in capsaicinoids can induce the same pleasurable feeling people get from eating them. Judging by the reaction from the residents of Irwindale, it seems unlikely.
“Over time, the neighbors might get more used to” the pepper exhaust. Walker says. “But there’s always going to be a few that it’s going to bother.”
The bottom line: Experts don’t believe there are any long-term health risks to sniffing capsaicinoids, the irritating chemicals found in chile peppers. If you can eat them, those chemicals may actually benefit your health. Capsaicinoids, researchers have found, have anti-cancer, anti-inflammation, anti-oxidant, and even anti-obesity properties. One study found that ingesting capsaicinoids can help reduce belly fat, appetite, and energy intake.
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