The Science of Spice – Ciara Barrett

We, as Brits, love spicy food. Studies show that as a nation, Chinese and Indian are our all-round favourite cuisines even after our own classics like fish and chips or the humble traditional roast. This leads us to ask why and how do so many people, despite not having grown up eating spicy, rich food, love it with such a passion? These foods originated from other parts of the world and even the growing effect of multicultural communities doesn’t explain why we have grown so diverse in our food choices. Another possible question is why is there such a big divide between chilli lovers and haters? There are those that have stuck to the British stereotype of preferring milder food, which is perfectly fine, but what determines this difference?

Diving into the chemistry side, capsaicin is the most common molecule found to give chillies their heat, belonging to the capsaicinoids, a class of compounds found in almost all peppers. It stimulates the pain receptors in your mouth which explains the burning felt when eating spicy food. This is the same receptor that responds when you touch hot objects by transmitting pain to the brain. (As a side note, capsaicin is hydrophobic, meaning it repels water, which explains why drinking water really won’t help to wash it down when you accidentally put too much chilli sauce on your food.)

There are a number of relatively untested theories as to why we love spicy food (spicy food here meaning food containing chillies and not food with actual spices like ginger, paprika, etc.) and why some people can tolerate higher levels of heat than others who prefer none at all.

One possible explanation is that spice tolerance is genetic; some people have less responsive receptors which gives them a high tolerance. In the same way that people may have a naturally high pain tolerance (read: fire eaters), people with a high spice tolerance aren’t affected as much by the effects of spicy food and therefore feel less pain from it and can eat hotter chillies to get the same effect as someone with more sensitive receptors. Similarly, fondness of strong flavours has been shown to have genetic factors in some people too, so some people really are born with it.

The next theory is that tolerance of spice is an environmentally influenced trait. People who eat spicy food regularly and/or from a young age gain a greater tolerance and don’t feel as much burn from it. It was thought that people who ate lots of hot chillies from a young age had damaged nerve endings in their taste buds, but taste buds only have a lifespan of 10-14 days so, like burning your tongue on a hot drink, the damage would be non-permanent even if chillies did burn off your taste buds. However, with this myth busted, it is in fact possible to become used to a certain level of spice by eating it from a young age and thus be able to tolerate hotter food later in life because you’ve become accustomed. This redefines your threshold of what constitutes ‘very spicy’ relative to others and is known as desensitisation.

The final, least tested theory is that for some people, eating spicy food is a “thrill-seeking activity”. Like touching a hot surface, the pain receptors transmit a message to the brain that this food is possibly dangerous, but the logical side of the brain knows it isn’t. This is a similar situation as coming down a rollercoaster- once the body realises this seemingly dangerous activity isn’t dangerous at all, it gives a thrilling rush of endorphins.

These theories all aim to explain why some people go for the Extra Hot option at Nando’s and how this is possible in an infamously “bland” society like Britain. They’re all relatively uncharted so for now it will remain a mystery as to why we love spicy food; maybe it’s because it just feels like a rollercoaster.

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