Do You Love Spicy Food?

Do you look for the spiciest option on the menu or do you run away as soon as you hear the word "jalapeño"?

Posted: 3:40PM on Oct 6, 2019 | By Pynora


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Physiology of Spicy Food

Posted: 10:24PM on Oct 6, 2019 | By Pynora

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Do you always douse your food in a layer of hot sauce? Do you look for the spiciest option on the menu? Some people hate spicy foods but others swear by them: what’s the difference? What makes someone enjoy spicy foods and can it have anything to do with psychology?

What’s spicy?

To understand this, first, we need to cover the basis of flavor perception. Flavor is actually a combination of what you perceive with your tongue – the ‘taste’ of your food – and the smells your nose picks up. Taste is, more or less, a bundle of sensations: we perceive the qualities of a certain food, which includes the texture, the smell and the temperature of the meal. Have you noticed that, when you’re ill, everything seems to taste a little bit off? This bland taste is due to the fact that your taste sensation lacks a vital component: the sense of smell, which can be impaired by a stuffy nose, for once.

Dishes are made up of a combination of different tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory. Normally, it’s sugar that activates the sensory cells that respond to the sweetness but other substances – such as the alcohols in fruit juices or certain amino acids – can also ‘taste’ sweet. Any food containing sodium and chloride – the basis of table salt – activates the salt sensory cells. The bitter taste is thought to have evolved as a defensive mechanism, as many poisonous plants are bitter to the taste; and the perception of sour is the cells’ reaction to the hydrogen ions in acids, which split off when dissolved in a watery solution. Lastly, the savory or ‘’umami’’ sensation is the result of either glutamic acid or aspartic acid, contained in plants such as tomatoes and asparagus but also meat.

But what about spicy? What creates the ‘spicy’ taste?A person is holding a small scotch bonnet pepper on their hand

Well, spiciness isn’t actually a taste – there are no receptors for spicy food on your tongue. The culprit behind spiciness is compounds known as capsaicinoids, the most well-known of which is the capsaicin. There are no taste buds associated with capsaicinoids so what you’re experiencing when eating spicy foods is actually a sensation. When the capsaicinoids reach the tongue, they interact with a special type of protein, found on the surface of nerve cells – the TRPV1. It’s normally activated by physical heat (anything above 43˚C or 109˚F). Once it’s triggered, the TRPV1 sends a signal via the neural network to the brain alerting it that this particular body part is 'on fire'… even though there may not necessarily be any physical heat present. This is what causes the perception of spiciness: your brain is literally thinking you’re being burned.

Why do we like spicy foods?

It seems counterintuitive that we will grow to like something that our brains literally perceive as dangerous. In fact, researchers believe that we aren’t born loving the hot sauce, but instead, learn to like it through repeated exposure to spicy foods. Professor Paul Rozin from the University of Pennsylvania refers to this as ‘benign masochism’.

Food preferences are vastly different and, to a great extent, unexplained. Some taste preferences are easier to understand than others: we don’t like bitter things because evolutionary, the bitter taste signals something may be poisonous. Sweet foods signal a high caloric density, which offered a significant evolutionary benefit when food was scarce. But where do spicy foods fall: why are we willing to suffer the costs for the intangible benefits of their taste?

One possible explanation has to do with the body’s response to capsaicin, the main ingredient in spicy foods. What do spicy foods do to our body? They make it think it’s been attacked. The reaction between the capsaicin and the TRPV1 protein fools your brain into thinking your mouth is on fire: as part of your body’s natural response to this stress, your brain releases endorphins, the ‘feel-good’ hormones. The endorphins’ role is to block the nerve’s ability to transmit painful signals – in a way, reduce the pain. Not only that, but the brain also releases dopamine, which is part of the body’s natural reward circuitry. So, in a nutshell, eating spicy foods creates a stress response in your body, accompanied by a rush. It’s essentially a high!

What does spicy food do to your body?Woman is holding a bottle of spicy sauce with smoke coming out of the open bottle

The brain isn’t the only part affected by the capsaicin. You probably know the effects fairly well, if you’re a lover of spicy dishes: sweating, stomach cramps, runny nose. The capsaicin causes the mucous glands to go into an overhaul, which causes the runny nose, an increase of saliva and watery sensation in your mouth. Because your brain essentially believes you’re on fire, it also triggers perspiration: in one word, excessive sweating, to help you cool down.

Is spicy food bad for you?

So, is this form of benign masochism actually bad for you? Are spicy foods, consumed by billions of people around the world, healthy or harmful. As with most things, the answer is somewhere in the middle.

The spicy chili-pepper is the signature of Mexican cuisine, one of the cultures that maintain a fairly high life expectancy. So, even if the capsaicin fools your brain into thinking your mouth is on fire, this doesn’t really have any long-term effects, as far as your health is concerned. In fact, they may actually help you live better, according to a 2015 study which found that eating spicy foods 6-7 days a week had a 14% reduction in total mortality.

Contrary to common misconception, spicy foods don’t necessarily cause or exacerbate the symptoms of ulcers. Studies have actually found that the capsaicin in spicy foods inhibits the acid production in the stomach (the main culprit behind ulcers). However, you may want to steer clear from them if you have Irritable Bowel Syndrome or hemorrhoids.

Can too spicy food be dangerous? Many people take pride in eating the spiciest option on the menu but there are things that can be too spicy for your own good. According to a research paper, eating too much of the world’s hottest pepper, the ghost pepper or bhut jolokia chili pepper, in too short a time can actually kill you. Of course, you will need to eat about three pounds of these in a single sitting to actually suffer fatal consequences, so the chances are rather slim.

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