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Chaos Ensues at ZestFest as Judges Sample Heat Capsaicin

A medical emergency this morning at a judging session for the Fiery Food Challenge, the spicy food contest held in conjunction with ZestFest, served as a visceral reminder of how much heat capsaicin extract packs -- and raised questions about whether the chemical should be allowed in competition.

The owner of Chili Pepper Magazine left the Irving Convention Center on a stretcher after sampling a product labeled only as #337, a blind entry in the hot sauce with extract category.

"That's a nightmare in a bottle," said Larry Wampler, a fellow judge and chili cook. "Awful."

Event organizers stressed reactions to hot sauce are highly individual, so eaters with underlying health conditions and macho attitudes are more likely to suffer. But capsaicin extract is so controversial it was briefly banned at the Fiery Food Challenge, when the show was under different ownership. Hot sauce makers are now debating whether a new law adopted by the European Union will prohibit the sale of sauces amped up with extract there.

"They're not going to let us judge extract any more," one judge told another.

Seasoned hot sauce fans describe extract as "not natural." The product of a chemical process, extract is the pure extract of pepper.

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"You can't let any fool mess with it," Wampler said.

Still, some eaters love the stuff, and say it's a useful foodstuff when approached with caution.

Unfortunately, judges weren't given much warning, so chaos resulted after the first few judges tasted the sample on their white plastic spoons. Judges jumped up, running for a table set with whipped cream, cheddar cheese and milk. "Drink this down!," Wampler yelled, frantically distributing raw sugar packets. The man who ended up in the hospital made the mistake of drinking a glass of water: Wampler grabbed the glass, handing him a strawberry coated with sugar.

As a judge told me later: "Newbie, you've had some of the hottest shit."

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