Sriracha + Harissa: A Spicy Mystery
August 20, 2014 9:22 AM   Subscribe

Why do sriracha and harissa disagree with my digestive system, when many other spicy foods that also contain chiles and garlic do not?

I know Ask loves to be like "OMG DO A FULL ALLERGY PANEL, MAYBE IT'S ACTUALLY GLUTEN/FRUCTOSE/AIR YOU'RE ALLERGIC TO!!!" but I have definitely narrowed it down, and after getting sick over and over again, I am absolutely sure that the issue is sriracha and harissa. I have dipped bread in a mix of sriracha and butter and gotten super sick; I ate buttered bread this morning and I'm fine.

I'm ok with cutting them out and not cooking with them anymore, but the why is torturing me.

-A local higher-end Vietnamese restaurant, Saigon Sisters, makes a homemade sriracha you can buy at their stand in the French Market. As I recall, I don't remember having issues with it, so I'll probably just throw out my Huy Fong sriracha and replace it with the homemade stuff. But it confuses me why I'd have issues with Huy Fong sriracha and not Saigon Sisters'.

-I'm mixed-raced Chicana, I am absolutely no stranger to spicy food. I have never, ever, ever had these issues with Mexican-style salsas, no matter how spicy they are, no matter if they're fresh or canned. I consume tons of cumin, garlic, chiles, tomatoes, and hot wings.

-The digestive issues are not just predictable "ring of fire" stuff that's to be expected with spicy food. Feel free to skip this icky part, but it you're really curious, the issues are: cramping, bloating, diarrhea, super urgent and frequent and painful bowel movements, and food made with the ingredients in question passing through me very quickly and largely undigested.

-The harissa was from a brand new jar, so I don't think it's a case of some weird fungus growing in an old bottle of condiment.

-I do have issues with digesting tons of acid; a glass of fresh lemonade will eat me up inside. I don't think this is related at all, but I thought I would throw it out there.

What is the issue here? Something with the way sriracha and harissa are preserved? An act of the culinary gods? A curse?
posted by Juliet Banana to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Are we talking bottled harissa, too? How are bottled salad dressings for you? The common thickener xanthan gum can be really hard to digest for some people because it expands in the gut and creates exactly the symptoms you describe. Maybe you are extra-sensitive to it?
posted by peachfuzz at 9:34 AM on August 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I've only tried one brand of harissa, and it does not contain xanthan gum.
posted by Juliet Banana at 9:40 AM on August 20, 2014

Yay guessing. I'm going to go with xanthan gum, too.

Ingredients of Huy Fong sriracha: Chili, sugar, salt, garlic, distilled vinegar, potassium sorbate, sodium bisulfite and xanthan gum.

Typical ingredients of store-bought harissa: Canola Oil, Water, Sundried Tomatoes, Red Wine Vinegar, Spices, Salt, Habaneros Chili, Onion, Xanthan Gum.

And, some info on xanthan gum from WebMD: "Xanthan gum is safe when up to 15 grams per day are taken. It can cause some side effects such as intestinal gas (flatulence) and bloating...Nausea, vomiting, appendicitis, hard stools that are difficult to expel (fecal impaction), narrowing or blockage of the intestine, or undiagnosed stomach pain: Do not use xanthan gum if you have any of these conditions. It is a bulk-forming laxative that could be harmful in these situations."

**xanthan gum does not have to be included in food labels, as far as I can tell.
posted by kinetic at 9:42 AM on August 20, 2014

How do you react to pickled jalapeƱos? The answers to this question might be helpful.

I know for me personally, it's the combination of vinegar and spice that leads to problems.
posted by hydrobatidae at 9:46 AM on August 20, 2014

Try making harissa and sriracha at home. If no issues, then you know it's something in the manufacturing process (preservatives, additives, containers, etc). Also, you could try the ingredients (in the recipes linked above) individually to see if any give you problems.
posted by melissasaurus at 9:49 AM on August 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Maybe you are just sensitive to peppers, which are nightshades and anecdotally cause some people digestion problems. Have you noticed any issues with eating other peppers, like bell peppers? (That said, tomatoes are also nightshades and are a main ingredient in Mexican salsa, so this theory may not hold water.)
posted by megancita at 9:53 AM on August 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Maybe you are just sensitive to peppers, which are nightshades and anecdotally cause some people digestion problems.

She said she can eat other spicy foods fine, so that's not it.

I'd also be shocked if it were xantham gum because that is so common in all kinds of foods, that I'd think she'd have digestive problems all the time.

I am skeptical that it's Sriracha at all -- the last thing you ate is not always the cause of digestion problems.

Either way, you can always just stop eating Sriracha entirely for a while and see if you still have the problems.
posted by empath at 10:06 AM on August 20, 2014

Response by poster: I am skeptical that it's Sriracha at all -- the last thing you ate is not always the cause of digestion problems.

This is a consistent, ongoing issue that's happened many different times, happens every single time, and on occasions where every single other thing I ate was a normal thing I eat all the time that never causes me issues.

Also, um, if you refer to the gross part of my question, it is sometimes possible for me to visually identify what I was digesting that caused me so much trouble.
posted by Juliet Banana at 10:43 AM on August 20, 2014

Does anything else at all do that to you? I'm no stranger to horrible gut problems and it sounds a lot like a dietary intolerance.
posted by griphus at 10:53 AM on August 20, 2014

(A dietary intolerance in contrast to what hot peppers do on a general basis, and the acid indigestion you get from lemonade.)
posted by griphus at 10:58 AM on August 20, 2014

Looking up the ingredients for Huy Fong sriracha, one of them is potassium sorbate. I'm in an online support group with a lot of people with severe dietary intolerances, and some of them have issues with potassium sorbate. It's a pretty common preservative, though, so I'd expect you to see issues with other foods too. And yes, as griphus says, those are definitely symptoms that are consistent with serious dietary intolerance.
posted by KathrynT at 11:48 AM on August 20, 2014

I too am skeptical that it could be caused by xanthan gum. When I was doing Atkins, I would use the stuff to thicken pan sauces into gravy. I never measured it out in grams, but it takes something like 1/2 tsp for a pan sauce or 1 tsp for a stew. IIRC 1 tsp of water is about 5 grams and the powder weighs a lot less, so it was a fraction of a gram per serving and you're getting even less than that in a squirt of Sriracha. It's something you can easily test though, I bought my packet of xanthan gum in the natural foods section of my local grocery store.
posted by TungstenChef at 1:02 PM on August 20, 2014

Best answer: Could be the amount of vinegar in both of them, or that in combination with other ingredients.
posted by smoke at 3:13 PM on August 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Huy Fong is made with ripe jalapenos. What sort of peppers does your local restaurant use for their sriacha?
posted by elsietheeel at 9:54 PM on August 20, 2014

Best answer: I think the intolerance to acidic foods is all the explanation you need, to be honest -- sriracha and harissa both include vinegar as a significant ingredient.
posted by Andrhia at 4:47 AM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

How does garlic powder (as opposed to fresh garlic) treat you, especially in large quantities?
posted by en forme de poire at 12:32 PM on August 21, 2014

You'd probably have noticed this already from other foods, but possible garlic allergy? Many hot sauces don't contain garlic (ok, many basic hot sauces don't), so that could be a culprit lurking in the sauces.

Otherwise, vinegar is indeed the likeliest problem. Spicy foods don't generally have much vinegar, but hot sauces have tons.
posted by zinful at 2:49 PM on August 21, 2014

Beyond allergy, garlic also has a lot of fructans, which we can't digest but which are readily fermented by gut microbes, and which are known to cause symptoms like cramps, diarrhea, etc. in susceptible people. In this case it could also be a dosage thing - i.e., a few cloves of garlic might be fine, but if you're eating a lot of a highly garlicky condiment (especially if it uses garlic powder, which is quite concentrated and easy to add a lot of) it might cause trouble.
posted by en forme de poire at 3:29 PM on August 21, 2014

Can you give us either the names of the brands you've used or the ingredient lists? Unfortunately, I'm guessing that both of them include "spices" or some such thing that we won't know what it means, but it might help.
posted by freezer cake at 3:46 PM on August 21, 2014

Response by poster: I linked to both of the exact brands in my question (just clarifying, not chiding! you easily could have thought I was just linking to definitions for those who weren't familiar). Part of the reason it's so puzzling to me is this:

Mina Harissa is a traditional Moroccan red pepper sauce, carefully blended using only 6 simple all natural ingredients; red chili pepper, red bell pepper, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, salt.

I HAVE COOKED WITH ALL THOSE INGREDIENTS BEFORE! In particular, I eat a fuckton of bell pepper and garlic (fresh or jarred usually, not powered) and chiles.

I might regret a super spicy salsa the next day, but I'm not dealing with the nauseating cramps and being trapped in the bathroom.

I'm starting to think it's one of these "more than the sum of it's parts" issues. Getting a spicy food through my body might sting a little, but getting a spicy food that also eats at my stomach/whatever lining with acidity is worse? I guess? I'm just mind blown that such small amounts of the items in question can make me so sick; I used a tablespoon of harissa to make 5-6 servings of carrot salad, and one serving made me sick.
posted by Juliet Banana at 5:51 PM on August 21, 2014

Okay, so I can eat green bell peppers just fine, but red ones cause severe epigastric pain for several hours. I figured there's probably some organic compound present in a red pepper that isn't in a green one.

So my logic (?) went thusly:
1. Huy Fong specifically uses ripe jalapenos
2. jalapenos are usually eaten green
3. while researching Huy Fong peppers I found a recipe that used Fresnos because ripe jalapenos can be hard to find
4. harissa is a red pepper paste with additional unidentified chilies
5. hey go eat a ripe jalapeno and see what happens?
posted by elsietheeel at 11:06 PM on August 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: If anyone's still curious about this, I got really sick the other day off the SmokeStack burger from Shake Shake, which features chopped pickled cherry peppers. I think the issue is definitely chiles that have been preserved with the use of vinegar.
posted by Juliet Banana at 8:21 AM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

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