Behind his calm, methodical approach to every hot chilli eating and super spicy food challenge, Dustin “Atomik Menace” Johnson is enduring a kind of physical pain and mental anguish beyond what most will ever experience in a lifetime.
In one of his most-watched YouTube livestreams, the 31-year-old Las Vegas resident downs 122 super-spicy Carolina Reapers, the Guinness World Record holder for hottest pepper, while fans watch and cheer him on. While there are clues that he’s struggling – his face turns a deep red color and shines with perspiration, and in the latter half in particular, he takes breaks – his low-key demeanor has made the growing chillihead community question whether he’s built like an average human, or if he’s human at all.
“I would say anywhere after 60, every few peppers I would say, ‘I don’t know if I can keep going,’” Johnson recounts via Zoom from the same black-lit, poster-adorned spot he shoots his videos in. “And people were like, ‘Nah, just keep going. You look like you’re fine.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not … but I’ll keep trying.’”
Two hours later, he finished the bowl.
Johnson concedes that he’s always had a higher-than-average tolerance to capsaicin, the organic compound in pepper seeds that interacts with receptors in the body to create the hot, burning sensation of spicy foods. He’s built that tolerance up with practice, especially when it comes to the mouth, the sensitive starting point of every competition. Some chilli eaters experience face spasms, thunderclap headaches, excessive sweating, tears and a gushing, runny nose, but just about everyone’s struggle peaks when the peppers proceed from the mouth to the digestive tract.
“You can effectively map your GI tract by feeling how it moves,” Johnson explains. It begins with a warm sensation at the base of the sternum, which quickly turns tight, like a sustained, never-ending ab crunch. As it continues down to the right side, Johnson says that’s where it stings the most. The pods have to wind through the intestines, and with every twist and turn comes a sharp, stabbing sensation.
Eventually, the stomach revolts, tightening even more into a stubborn cramp, seemingly begging for it all to stop.
“Luckily, what happens with me is I can stave that off long enough to get through a challenge or to get through a pepper contest,” says Johnson, who used to coolly solve a Rubik’s cube puzzle in competitions until fans complained it could give him an unfair advantage. “It’ll be later that night or even as late as the next morning – that’s when it hurts me the most.”
Some competitors are out of commission for days, unable to eat and tending to upset stomachs (and yes, that also sometimes means painful sessions on the toilet).
With first-place prizes in the most prestigious challenges hovering around the $1,000 mark, it’s a wonder why he or any of the thousands of YouTubers, TikTokers, Instagrammers and Facebookers regularly upload challenge videos to the internet for fellow pepperheads and friends.
While competitive chilli eating has existed for years in the US, Canada, the UK and Australia among predominantly white men between the ages of 20 and 45, it’s become more mainstream and organized through social media and events like New York’s massive Hot Sauce Expo, Albuquerque’s Fiery Foods Show and Smokin’ Ed’s Pepper Eating Challenge in Fort Mill, South Carolina.
The pandemic has driven everyone online, where people like Roger Trier, host of the Hot Dang Show, and Johnny Scoville (who is named after the Scoville heat unit, the way spice levels are measured in peppers and products) have built impressive followings for their hot sauce reviews and daring feats of strength.
There are innumerable types of challenges and products involved, sometimes with increasingly spicy raw pods, others with super-hot gourmet chocolate or gummy bears or tortilla chips, or a combination of all of the above. The most difficult has to be the extract challenges, where competitors eat tubes or chug bottles of extra-high concentrations of already overly hot peppers.
It’s largely driven by ego, showing off and a fondness for thrill-seeking, says Troy Primeaux, owner of Primo’s Peppers and the developer of the 7 Pot Primo, another one of the world’s hottest peppers at 1,473,480 Scoville heat units (SHU).
“I think there’s this innate morbid curiosity and fascination with peppers, just like there is with rock’n’roll,” he says on the phone from his home in Lafayette, Louisiana. “They want to be cool. It’s like getting on a roller coaster ride, you know. They might be getting a little bit more than they think they’re going to get, but they want to show off to their girlfriend or wife.”
Much to the delight of audiences (and said girlfriends and wives), the toughest-looking or loudest-talking guy in the room isn’t always the winner. Some of the strongest competitors don’t have neck tattoos or bulging muscles, and not every winner is a man. Take London’s Shahina Waseem, a petite, stylish and so far undefeated woman who notoriously beat Johnson in the final speed-eating round in a fierce competition in Sacramento in 2019.
Waseem, who goes by the name UK Chilli Queen, remembers it well.
“That was probably the scariest contest of my life,” she confesses. “I was just in my head thinking, ‘How do I prove myself? I cannot lose now.’ And it was just ridiculous, because this guy – he’s a good friend of mine and he is brilliant at what he does – but he doesn’t feel the pain like anyone else, you know? He has this great big tolerance. He could sit there for hours and just look like a machine with no reactions, no tears, no nothing. And I am the opposite.”
When Waseem competes, she appears to enter a trancelike state. Between regular nose-blowing and the occasional “I don’t think I can do this”, she rocks back and forth as she chews through each challenge, eyes tearing through firmly closed eyes.
Waseem’s partner, Paul Ouro, and fellow UK competitor Matt Tangent are the founders of the League of Fire, an elaborate global ranking system where points are allocated to competitors when they successfully complete challenges. Until the League of Fire was established, the community was disparate and disjointed, and there was no official ranking of competitors.
While it’s not always peaceful and there can be plenty of trash-talking and pettiness, Ouro says the League has created a camaraderie among pepperheads that he didn’t anticipate.
“This isn’t professional, no one’s getting paid, everyone’s just stepping up to get bragging rights,” he says. After that first challenge against Johnson, Waseem and the rest of the competitors drank beers at a local bar and became fast friends. They visit each other when possible and watch each other’s livestreams, cheering each other on and sending each other super-hot and hard-to-get products available in their respective hometowns.
Some chilliheads have large enough audiences on YouTube that they can produce content full-time. Others become “hot sauce influencers”, which can help with funding travel to festivals. There’s a huge and growing market for extra-hot sauce: retail sales are up, probably in part because restaurants have closed in the pandemic. Trend forecasters are predicting that spicy foods are going to reach a whole new level of popularity in coming years: “Ultra-spicy is the new umami,” says a recent Guardian article.
One contributing factor is probably Hot Ones, a wildly successful web series by First We Feast where celebrities eat progressively spicy wings while answering well-researched questions from host Sean Evans. Their YouTube channel has gained 1.3 million new subscribers since March of last year, and the show’s been able to continue production by conducting interviews remotely with stars such as Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner as they taste-test hot wings.
It’s also a compelling way to sell hot sauce. The show produces its own line that clock in at various Scoville levels – an innovative approach to funding pop culture journalism. A company’s inclusion in the 10-sauce lineup can be game-changing for entrepreneurs in the space, especially when it comes to the spicier selections like Kansas City’s Da Bomb Beyond Insanity, a highly concentrated extract-based sauce that consistently sends A-list celebrities into total meltdowns.
Despite the fact that it sent actor Idris Elba into a coughing fit, made the chef Gordon Ramsay cry tears of agony and Oscar-winner Charlize Theron said it tastes like “battery acid”, I too was drawn to trying Da Bomb, one of the worst-reviewed sauces on the planet. When I was notified that my local hot sauce e-store had finally received new inventory (it consistently sells out), I pulled the trigger.
Under Johnson’s advice, I had dinner before my tasting. He says it’s good to protect the digestive tract with alkaline foods like yogurt or a banana. I ate two moderately spicy cauliflower “wings” first to warm up. Then, after reassuring myself that if Paul Rudd and Halle Berry could do it, so could I, I popped it in.
First, the flavor: It’s terrible. I don’t know what battery acid tastes like, but if the makers of Da Bomb (who say it was invented to spice enormous quantities of soups and stews with just a few drops) said it was inspired by it, I’d believe them.
But it’s nothing compared to the shocking burn that followed. I ran to the bathroom for cold water, sticking my tongue out in the mirror, surprised it wasn’t bleeding. There was also an endorphin rush – not enough to block out the pain, but the high felt transformative, like I may never be the same.
I was careful to not touch my eyes, where capsicum residue on your fingers can wreak all kinds of havoc. Tears streamed down my sweaty face, and my stomach clenched up in anticipation. At a mere 135,600 SHU, I was experiencing a fraction of what Waseem and Johnson do when they eat peppers like Carolina Reaper, which come in around 2,200,000 SHU.
I turned to milk, often on the table in front of competitor at chilli-eating competitions, but it’s an immediate disqualification if they take even a tiny sip. I gulped it down, imagining myself in the ER explaining my state to frontline workers in a pandemic.
But true to Johnson’s word, the worst was yet to come.
I could feel the heat traveling through my digestive tract, but it didn’t get too far. Like severe menstrual cramps, waves of nausea sent me to lay on the bathroom floor.
Eventually, I couldn’t hold it down. Regretting the pre-tasting meal, Da Bomb departed my system along with everything else in a steady sea of vomit. Since throwing up is a post-challenge trick chilli-eating competitors recommend, I maybe evaded the worst.
I wondered how Da Bomb’s makers, Spicin Foods, were building on its popularity. I should have guessed: Jeff Hinds, president of Spicin, says the company cranked the heat, developing even hotter versions of the wretched stuff.
Da Bomb Ground Zero measures at 321,003 SHU, and Da Bomb the Final Answer comes in at 1.5m SHU. At Spicin’s tasting bar in Kansas (which is open through the pandemic), chilli-eaters have to be 18 or over and sign a waiver to try “the Source” – which is recommended to be used one drop at a time and not “around children or pets” – at an astonishing 7.1m SHU.
Johnson admits that even he is intimidated by the extracts. And yet YouTube is filled with videos by amateurs and experienced chilli eaters all willing to feed an audience’s sado-masochistic taste for pain.
But reducing the allure to ego, thrill-seeking and sado-masochism isn’t the whole story. For Waseem and Johnson, chilli eating has been confidence-building for the formerly shy introverts. For fans, it can definitely be funny. But it can also be deeply inspiring.
“I’m Johnny Scoville, and as you know I have issues,” says the triple-braid bearded host of Chase the Heat at the beginning of his Mad Dog 357 Plutonium extract challenge video, where he’s about to chug the 9m SHU concentrate. He’s nervous, he says – not because of the challenge, which he’s already completed twice, but because of a confession he’s about to make.
He continues, explaining that the party side of chilli-eating competitions had taken a toll. He’d been drinking too much, and it had become unhealthy. He was livestreaming the challenge not just to entertain the audience, but also to mark one year of sobriety.
“I’m a better version of me today. You guys don’t know how my life has changed for the better in the last year,” he says, explaining that his family life has improved, he’s fallen in love and has a thriving YouTube channel.
“So you guys can do this,” he says. “If you guys have something that you’re trying to conquer, you can do it. If I can, you can.” A few minutes later, he puts on a protective glove and unscrews the cap of the extract, wincing at the aroma before holding it up to the camera.
“First time I did it, it smelled like pain and regret,” he says. “The second time I did it, it smelled like misery and trauma.
“It smells like victory and accomplishment today,” he finishes. “Now get ready to watch my head change color.”
Chinese software developers have crowdsourced a spreadsheet that dishes the dirt on working conditions at hundreds of employers.
Dubbed WorkingTime, the protest aims to offer transparency regarding how many work hours are expected. Many organisations expect 72-hour working weeks – an arrangement dubbed “996” after the 9am to 9pm, six days a week culture in place at many Chinese companies.
The practice has sometimes been promoted by the rich and famous: Alibaba’s Jack Ma publicly stated that employees should actually want to work long hours and a job you love enough to spend that much time doing is a “blessing”.
Chinese courts take a different view. A recent decision found 996-style hours aren’t permissible, as Chinese law caps overtime at 36 hours per month and requires compensation for the extra hours. But China is not a workers’ paradise, and the practice persists because oversight is limited and independent labour unions are illegal in the Middle Kingdom.
The WorkingTime project aims to assist developers looking for work to understand what they’re signing up for.
“The opacity of working hours in some companies, working time is a very important factor in choosing an offer,” wrote a movement founder on Chinese Q&A site Zhihu.
The spreadsheet in which workers record how many hours they work a week, job descriptions, breaks and other remarks strongly suggest that grueling hours remain at some workplaces. Others stick to a 40-ish hour working week and add perks like happy hours and subsidized housing.
The anecdotes, visible on an openly accessible spreadsheet associated with the project, provide a similar service for Chinese tech workers to web pages like Glassdoor – giving tips on company culture and requirements.
Some remarks include:
“I often go on business trips. I have been on business for half of a month. I leave work after 10 o’clock every night at the customer’s site. I have to work overtime on weekends. The entire department has worked for two years except for the leaders.”
“Feel free to ask for leave and lunch time, because it’s the field work, whether you are in the company or not, and you can play games casually, regardless of the leader. If you drink too much, it’s fine if you don’t come.”
“Mandatory to keep people on duty every night, compulsory all staff to work overtime every Saturday, no overtime pay, working hours over 10 hours.”
“When the daily work cannot be completed, it is necessary to work overtime at home.”
“The work pace is fast and the work content is highly saturated. Flexible commute, just do everything.”
The WorkingTime project has gone viral, with the founders reporting over ten million views and thousands of entries as of last Tuesday. While the founders remain anonymous, contributors hail from a diverse subset of companies that includes some of China’s big tech giants like Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei and Bytedance, as well as multinational companies such as SAP, Dyson, Intel and IBM.
According to the project’s GitHub page, lawyers are currently pitching in to sort out legal issues prior to making the project freely downloadable. However, a summary table of data collated daily is already available in Chinese.
Unsurprisingly, the project has stirred some ire. The founders have asked that participants do not apply for editing permission, explaining that “due to malicious editing” such privileges will not be granted. ®
The move comes following a power purchase agreement between Johnson & Johnson and Ørsted, which has windfarm sites in Clare and Kerry.
Johnson & Johnson has revealed plans to move to 100pc renewable electricity across its Irish operations.
The company has entered into an eight-year corporate power purchase agreement in Ireland with Danish company Ørsted. The agreement will help to ensure that the company’s entire Irish operations will be powered by electricity from 100pc renewable sources from now on.
Ørsted will supply the company with more than 1TWh of renewable energy during this period from two windfarms located in Kerry and Clare. The agreement will also help Ørsted as it invests in its strategy to construct more renewable generation in the future.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin, TD, praised the move in the context of Ireland’s climate action plans.
“Johnson & Johnson has embraced its environmental responsibilities globally, but also here in Ireland, and this agreement will help the company to achieve its wider climate goals. We are at a crucial point in the global fight against climate change and initiatives like this should become the benchmark for all companies to aspire to,” he said.
Towards net zero
Last year, Johnson & Johnson’s worldwide VP of environmental health, safety and sustainability, Paulette Frank, spoke at Silicon Republic’s Future Human event about the company’s “bold” climate goals. From her base in the US, Frank told attendees of the virtual event that her colleagues viewed the pandemic as “inspiration to propel” its climate action “further faster.”
Sourcing electricity from 100pc renewable sources is a goal the company set to achieve by 2025. By 2030, it wants to achieve carbon neutrality in its global operations.
John Lynch, plant leader at Johnson & Johnson Vision Care Ireland, said the company was proud to have met its targets in its Irish operations.
“Across our 10 sites and workforce of more than 5,000 here in Ireland, we are committed to supporting Johnson & Johnson’s climate action goals. In the last decade we have invested more than €60m in over 80 carbon footprint reduction projects.
“Today is a major landmark on our journey in Ireland to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030 and underlines our commitment to ensuring a better, healthier world.”
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Australians are the world’s biggest consumers of health and wellness apps, punching well above our per capita weight in our quest for peak physical and mental condition, according to research from telecommunications company Uswitch. In recent years we have also been making them – with everyone from fitness influencers to mental health advocacy groups launching digital products.
I’m partial to a bit of mobile-based movement and mindfulness myself, but I have a complex relationship with wellness. While I love green juices, pilates and my “ness” being “well”, I can’t abide many contemporary uses of the word. In the diet, fitness, fashion and other industries, “wellness” can feel like a barely repackaged “weight loss”, while “healthy” has replaced “slim” as companies respond superficially to the body positivity movement without really changing their ways.
Despite wholesome beginnings in the 1950s, wellness is often framed as a goal for the financially and genetically privileged – and don’t get me started on the pseudoscience.
So I choose cautious cynicism when engaging with wellness and wellbeing products – but I’ve also been alone in my house for the greater part of two years, so I’ll try pretty much anything.
Cost: $19.99 a month
Sweat is a women’s health app co-founded by Australian fitness influencer Kayla Itsines, who boasts a worldwide social media following of more than 40 million. It offers over 30 programs for training at home or the gym, including high-intensity interval training (Hiit), low-intensity training, yoga and barre.
I did sessions from the PWR Zero Equipment program and it was all easy to follow and very doable. Audio and written instructions and onscreen demonstrations are clear, and self-accountability is super easy. It’s perfect for lockdown and for busy people cramming in exercise wherever and whenever they can. Plus, I can report that burpees are still the merciless work of Satan herself.
Itsines has created an app that exists in the wellness space with little of the self-congratulatory, quasi-spiritual hoopla other influencers lean so heavily into. Sweat isn’t pretending to be something it’s not. It’s a workout app, you do workouts on it. Yes, there are recipes and lifestyle tips but they aren’t offered as miracle pathways to a higher plane of being.
Is it my preferred mode of exercise? No. But it’s convenient and flexible and I can see myself using it when I travel. If that’s a thing that ever happens again.
ReachOut’s WorryTime is an anxiety management app from the online youth mental health service that uses cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques to disrupt and manage repetitive thinking.
I am by no definition a youth, but I have mild anxiety and WorryTime’s methodology appealed to me. You nominate a daily time to do all your worrying and when you feel anxious, you note why in the app; every day at the designated time, you worry about what’s still plaguing you and delete what’s not. Easy!
I used WorryTime diligently for a while, noting my fears, my troubles and doubts and reassessing them every 24 hours. All was going well until I got busy with work, stressed about work and scared I’d stop getting work. Where the app had been a welcome task, it became a bugbear.
I was trying not to think about things that made me anxious and knowing the app contained a list of them created a classic avoidance paradigm. I skipped a day. And the next day. And the day after that. Soon the WorryTime alarm was causing me the very anxiety it was engaged to minimise. After a few weeks of this mental chicken-egg dance, I deleted the app. I may have been in the foetal position at the time.
I’m not advocating against WorryTime. It could be a great tool for others. There are no one-size-fits-all mental health salves. It would be nice if there were though.
Bibliotherapy with State Library Victoria
My favourite discovery from this whole exercise is bibliotherapy or book therapy, an age-old practice that uses literature to support better mental health and wellbeing. Basically, you read or are read aloud a prescribed text, specifically chosen to raise questions, uncover truths and encourage healing. It’s also fun to say.
In response to the pandemic, a new podcast called Bibliotherapy with State Library Victoria was launched. Hosted by bibliotherapy practitioner Dr Susan McLaine, it offers to help people “stay calmer in this fragile time”. In each episode, McLaine reads a short story and a poem and poses questions for listeners. Texts range from emerging and obscure writers to Tolstoy, Donne and Kipling.
I love this podcast. There’s something so intimate and soothing about being read to, no doubt embedded in childhood nostalgia. McLaine’s voice takes some getting used to, though to be fair I find this with most podcast hosts, but her choice of texts is excellent and she reads everything slowly and deliberately, “savouring every word and offering space between words”. It’s the closest thing to a hug I’ve had in months.
The only bad thing about it is that there are only two short seasons. After a brief search for similarly soporific, story-based podcasts and apps, I found the excellent Dreamy podcast, a collection of beautiful sleep stories by First Nations storytellers like Jazz Money and Aurora Liddle-Christie. Bringing tens of thousands of years of oral tradition into the digital world, Dreamy is “helping people of all walks of life to quiet their minds, drift into dreams, and disconnect from their devices”.
I also found Sleep Stories on the Calm app ($14.99 a month). It’s full of grown-up tales and mindful nonsense to soothe or bore you into slumber. There are even equally terrible and amazing celebrity cameos: Matthew McConaughey, Cillian Murphy and the hot duke from Bridgerton will read to you like you’re a child. Last night Harry Styles read me the worst poem I’ve ever heard – for 40 minutes. Five stars. Would listen again.
The Resilience Project
Price: $4.49 one time fee
The Resilience Project app is a “daily wellbeing journal” for all ages from a Melbourne-based organisation of the same name, providing evidence-based mental health strategies and “sharing the benefits of gratitude, empathy and mindfulness” to schools, sports clubs and businesses.
Users are encouraged to log on every day, note how they feel, record who or what they’re grateful for, perform acts of kindness and do a short guided meditation. This nice daily ritual only takes a few minutes but proves a small antidote to the current news cycle.
I don’t see myself using it long-term, because of repetitiveness and the world’s shortest attention span, but during this lockdown I’ve appreciated the nightly reminder to acknowledge my blessings and privilege and to reach out to friends.
Though it can’t do the heavy lifting where mental health is concerned, I’ll put it in my arsenal of chronic depression coping mechanisms, and try to use it in bad times. It won’t soothe what only drugs and Great British Bake Off can, but it might provide a few minutes respite.
Cost: $40 a month
The Class is an American exercise methodology-slash-mindfulness practice with semi-cult vibes, taught by a host of ridiculously hot and relentlessly cool twentysomethings who can pull off white Lycra and blend in on aGirlsset.
In fortuitous timing, founder Taryn Toomey launched online classes in late 2019, taking the Class into locked down homes around the world from 2020. Australians can access a wide selection of on-demand and live online classes, and there’s even an Australian teacher. Timezone differences narrow live options quite a bit, but most live classes become on-demand classes, so it doesn’t really matter.
Frequented by celebrities including Alicia Keys, Naomi Watts and Emma Stone, the Class is a mat-based, music-driven “cathartic workout experience” designed to “strengthen the body and balance the mind”. It’s yoga meets Les Mills meets clubbing. Movements are simple, repetition is key and loud exhales are encouraged. You may do squats for a whole song, free dance for another and star jumps for the next. In between, there’s stillness.
Teachers speak a kind of motivational psychobabble that is at once intolerable and addictive. It verges on the spiritual and flirts with cultural appropriation but remains just secular enough that I don’t turn it off. “Be in your power”; “You are enough”; “Softness is your birthright” and so on. Many teachers end their sessions with “I love you” which I somehow don’t hate.
At first, I struggled to put aside my prejudices against self-indulgent, pseudo-mystical wellness fads and find peace with beautiful women telling me to accept myself while making me do burpees. But the more I did it, the more I was able to just let go and roll with the theatre. Plus, it’s actually a very good workout.
I am now willingly paying for the Class. Let’s never speak of this again. I love you.