LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

There are three warnings you'll get before you put one of the hottest peppers in the world into your mouth.

There's the oily sheen and the spiky bumps that seem to be nature's way of saying 'Don't Eat Me." And then there's the dead giveaway, the name: The Carolina Reaper.

But here I am, in a lab at Winthrop University in South Carolina, where they test how hot these peppers are, trying the tiniest bite.

I hiccup, I cough, I can feel the pepper ripping through my esophagus knowing exactly where it is as if it has a GPS device on it. To see how a pepper this hot, more than 100 times hotter than a jalapeno, would have any commercial value, just doesn't make sense.

But the truth is, the superhot pepper business is on fire. One market research firm, IBISWorld, recently named hot sauce production as one of America's fastest-growing industries among other hot trends like solar panel manufacturing.

In the last few years, the average American has sought to add more spice to their meal and the food industry has obliged. From 2010 to 2012, the mention of the word "spicy" on fast food menus was up nearly 15 percent, according to food industry consulting firm Technomic.

The leading brand of sriracha hot chili sauce sold 20 million bottles last year. Heinz now has a Hot & Spicy ketchup. Red Robin rolled out a burger with a scorching ghost pepper sauce last year and, this week, unveiled its new Island Fire line, which features sandwiches and burgers with a habanero sauce.

Combine that with a rising Hispanic demographic -- now making up 17 percent of the U.S. -- and you can see how salsa has pushed past ketchup as the nation's top-selling condiment. Technomic's data reflects that 2013 is the first year ever that a majority of Americans say they prefer hot or spicy sauces, dips or condiments.

All this data is music to the ears of Ed Currie, an unrelenting grower of pepper pain and father of the Carolina Reaper. Currie says he'll harvest about 17 million peppers this year on his land in South Carolina and could make as much as $1 million selling the seeds and mixing his peppers into a paste that he sells to hot sauce companies.

"I pretty much work on peppers all the time," Currie said. "When I look at my children, I see peppers."

As the business has grown, Currie has had to protect himself. He has filed for the trademark on "Smoking Ed's Carolina Reaper" that would give him the sole right to use that phrase on sales of peppers and seeds.

Like most businesses on the rise, there's healthy competition. Shortly after the Ghost Pepper from India became the world's hottest pepper, native Australian pepper the Butch T Scorpion topped it. That's why Currie is paying a pretty penny for the right to be called the hottest pepper in the world.

He says he has spent about $12,000 to get the Guinness Book Of Records to call his pepper the hottest, presenting the organization with the evidence from Winthrop's lab, where chemist Cliff Calloway has been testing exactly how hot the peppers are.

Calloway says that, on average, Currie's pepper tests out to be the hottest in the world, having the chemical composition similar to pepper spray.

Sure doesn't sound like anything anyone would even try to eat, but it seems like our taste buds can't get enough.

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE