The Science Behind Spicy Food

Hot spicy foods - peppersA large number of us like spicy food. The food that gives us the sensation of heat and pain at the same time. While we try to figure out why people are attracted to those foods, let’s understand why we get those sensations in the first place.

Plants produce all sorts of compounds to protect themselves and their fruits from being destroyed by insects and animals. In large enough concentrations they can become toxic, but when little bits are used in cooking, they give a pleasing aroma or flavor.

It’s thought that plants evolved these chemicals to protect their fruits and seeds from being eaten and annihilated by the grinding of mammalian jaws. But, somewhere along the way that evolution plan backfired because we humans developed a taste for pain. So, the chemicals that make hot stuff hot, however, different plants produce different chemicals, which result in unique perceptions of hot and pain.

First, let’s look at our tongue. It is covered in a bunch of small bumps, called Papillae, that contain our taste buds. This is where the substance from food is detected, sending a signal up to the brain. This is later combined with sensory information about the texture, odor, and temperature that give our food its flavor.  In addition, we also have heat and pain detecting VR1 receptors in our mouths. These are things that tell us – “Hey! Look … maybe eating this hot pizza, right out of the oven, isn’t the best idea. ”  Normally they react to temperatures greater than 42 degrees Celsius, ( 107,6 degrees Fahrenheit ) but they can also be tricked.


In spicy foods, like chili peppers, for example, a component called Capsaicin binds to these receptors, which sends a signal to the brain that something is hot in your mouth. This then gives you a strange burning sensation that starts a physical reaction, making you sweat and turn red.
Of course, there’s not really anything hot enough to damage your mouth, still, the brain mistakenly thinks that there is. Because it is a noxious stimulus, your body’s fight-or-flight system is switched on. In the end, your metabolism accelerates to provide you with plenty of energy. Heart rate and blood flow to your muscles and brain increase. You feel more alert, Endorphins are released to deal with the pain and your appetite gets turned down so that your escape won’t be slowed down by hunger.

Here is an interesting fact:

Not only does Capsaicin cause a painful burning sensation, but it can also be a pain reliever.

After the primary exposure, the receptors will be numbed and won’t respond as strongly to the stimulus. Knowing this, researchers now have various creams that have capsaicin in them, that are being used to treat arthritis pain. So, what some people eat to feel a burn, other people use to ease their own pain. ( It is kind of strange how nature allows for both, still, it’s kind of cool. )

There are 2 large groups of pungent plants.

The first creates chemicals called Isothiocyanates, which are found in mustard plants, horseradish, and wasabi.
The other group creates compounds called Alkyl-amides and includes chili peppers, black peppers, and ginger.

Hot spicy foods - peppers

Although the chemicals produced by the plants are different they all seem to act in a very similar manner. They connect to and stimulate the temperature receptors within the nasal cavity and digestive tract.

The location of chemical action seems to be the main difference in how the various chemicals are perceived.
The Isothiocyanates are small molecules that get volatile fairly quick, which means that they end up in the air in our mouths and sinuses as we chew. They float into the sinuses where they make a bond with nerve endings, leading to the brain.
The Alkyl-amides are bigger, which means that they pretty much stay in your mouth … well, at least until they end up in the rest of the digestive tract. That’s why salsas and curries make your mouth so hot.

For all the hot spices, concentration is the key. The more spice you add, the hotter your food it will be, because more receptors will be triggered, thus leading to a more powerful sensation.

No wonder why we love the burn so much. It leaves a person feeling great, energized even. But if you do bite off more then you can handle, try using some ice to cool your mouth down. Alternatively, capsaicin and the others are oil soluble, so try drinking a glass of milk ( eating a cup of yogurt, or some peanut butter ) instead of reaching for the glass of water. Oils, fats, and alcohol all help to dissolve the capsaicin.

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