Mar 26, 2013
Some people can’t get enough spiciness in food – they generously douse their food with hot sauce, savoring that burning of the tongue that follows. For others, even the subtlest hint of spice can set their mouth on fire and leave them guzzling water to put out the flames. Whether you love the sensation or hate it, what is it about spicy foods that triggers that burning sensation?
The answer: Capsaicin, a natural compound found in the seeds of certain plants, puts the heat in hot foods. Your mouth contains millions of receptors that make up your sense of taste, allowing you to distinguish between bitter, sweet, salty, sour and savory. But your tongue is home for thousands of pain receptors, as well.
When you eat something spicy, the capsaicin irritates those pain receptors, causing a burning sensation. While it may feel painful or uncomfortable, fear not – you’re not actually doing any physical damage to your tongue.
Fun fact: Those pain receptors that are sensitive to capsaicin aren’t just found in your mouth, but all over your body. If you were to stick a chili pepper up your nose, you might feel that hot burning sensation there as well!
So why do some people enjoy this pain, while others can’t stand it? Experts still aren’t really sure. It could just be that some just aren’t as sensitive to the heat sensation as others, either for biological reasons, or because they’ve eaten a lot of spicy foods in their lives. Another theory holds that some people are drawn to spicy foods like chili peppers because of the health benefits: Some studies have shown that spicy foods promote a healthy metabolism by reducing triglyceride and insulin levels, help your heart by calming inflammation and boost your weight loss efforts by curbing your appetite.
Or could it be that spice-lovers are just masochists? Maybe. Dr. Paul Rozin from the University of Pennsylvania terms the love for spicy food “benign masochism”. In one study, he had participants eat chili peppers — each one gradually hotter, or more pungent, than the last. At the end, he asked the participants which chili they enjoyed the most, they said they enjoyed the highest level they could stand, just below the level of unbearable. However, this “hurts so good” theory is, so far, just a theory.
Even if you do enjoy the hottest of the hot — there are times when you may eat something spicier than you can handle. If you do accidently eat something too spicy, you don’t have to suffer the pain! Try not to go with your initial gut feeling to drink a glass of water, because water just spreads the capsaicin around your mouth, which makes it worse. Drinking milk (or any other dairy product) can help cool the tongue by coating it with fat, causing the pain to decrease. So next time you’re about to enjoy a plate full of Buffalo wings, have a glass of milk near by!