Fuego, Flamin’ Hot, Volcano… These are just some of the flavour descriptors attached to various ultra-spicy snacks gaining popularity among young shoppers.

The rising popularity of Korean, Vietnamese and Mexican cuisines in the UK over recent years has meant that gen Z and gen alpha consumers have grown a higher tolerance for spice. However, social media is driving that trend to new and hotter extremes…

Take viral YouTube chat show Hot Ones, which sees celebrity guests eat a series of increasingly spicy chicken wings. The challenge has made Aubrey Plaza resort to snorting milk, Jennifer Lawrence cry and Florence Pugh sweat out of her eyebrows.

A-listers’ extreme and often amusing reactions have helped the show garner a huge fanbase. Videos posted to the Hot Ones channel have accumulated 61.1 million views to date.

Then there’s the viral success of ultra-spicy rolled tortilla brand Takis. It was founded in Mexico 25 years ago, but gained a cult following during Covid lockdowns as shoppers videoed themselves struggling to eat its strongly seasoned snacks. To date, Takis’ US social media accounts have amassed 2.2 million TikTok followers and near 400k on Instagram.

After Takis owner Grupo Bimbo brought the brand across the pond to the UK in 2021, Brits jumped at the chance to test their spice tolerance too. When Aldi gave Takis a Specialbuy listing in September 2023, it had to impose a one pack per shopper limit due to high demand. According to NIQ data, its value reached £11.3m last year [52 w/e 9 September 2023].

How spicy is too spicy?

Social media has also driven trial of instant noodles in super-spicy flavours, including Korean noodle brand Samyang’s Buldak instant ramen range. To date, the hashtags ‘buldak’ and ‘samyang’ have been attached to tens-of-thousands of posts respectively. Some videos show grown men crying while eating the fiery noodles.

But while these challenges appear to be harmless fun, they can have a dark side. Denmark has this week recalled three lines of Samyang’s Buldak noodles over fears they could cause “acute poisoning”. 

The Danish Veterinary & Food Administration warned that consuming large quantities of capsaicin – the active ingredient in chillis – poses a particular risk to children and frail adults, and could result in symptoms such as burning and discomfort, nausea, vomiting and high blood pressure. 

Its concerns are warranted. Hot Chip Challenge – which sells a single ultra-spicy tortilla chip packaged in a coffin-shaped box – was banned in Germany in November after five teenagers were hospitalised, having eaten its product. They experienced symptoms including shortness of breath, high blood pressure and stomach pain.

It came after 14-year-old Harris Wolobah died in September after taking on the similar One Chip Challenge in the US.

Worryingly, the Danish food regulator claimed the chilli levels in the Samyang Buldak noodles it recalled were “even higher” than those in the Hot Chip Challenge tortilla chips.

Responsible food ranging

And while none of the affected products are listed by the UK’s traditional big four supermarkets, they are available for Brits to order via Amazon. Plus, another of Samyang’s products, Buldak Hot Chicken Flavour Ramen Cup is listed by Tesco, Asda and Morrisons and has received some concerning consumer reviews.

“My son’s lips became swollen and started to burn after eating these noodles, he did not even use all of the seasonings,” claims one Asda shopper. “My mouth and lips were burning for half hour after eating,” writes another.

While Asda had not responded to requests to comment by the time of writing, many shoppers mention in their reviews that they bought the noodles as a “challenge”, supposedly after seeing them on TikTok.

Increasingly, retailers and food manufacturers are looking to TikTok trends to inform their ranging and innovation. However, this latest recall serves as a warning for businesses to take stock before jumping on the latest viral craze.

Ultra-spicy snacks appeal predominantly to teenagers, who have the agency and pocket money to buy their own food but still deserve a duty of care. So, it’s now up to the retailers to do due diligence and check there are no health risks associated with a trending product before rushing to put it on shelves.

It pays to stay tuned in to social media, but sending kids to hospital certainly isn’t a good look.