Some like it hot: why do we like spicy food?
Whether it’s a Sichuan hot pot, Chilli Laksa or plate of hot wings, many of us have asked the same question while wiping away tears and blowing noses:
Why god? Why do we eat spicy food?
Well the answer isn’t immediately obvious. Science can only take us so far when working out why some enjoy spicy food, and others blow their top.
So let’s have a look at what is actually happening in our mouths, why we keep going back for more, and what is a Scoville really?
What Makes Spicy Food Spicy?
First, there are two types of “spiciness”:
- One feels like there’s an explosion in your sinus (think mustard, horseradish or wasabi)
- The other feels like your mouth is on fire (think chilli peppers).
The first type takes its explosive capabilities from a chemical compound called myrosinase. Now before we give any of you Vietnam flashbacks to science class, this is basically just a defence mechanism for when plant cells are crushed.
The first type is potent, but it doesn’t pack as big a punch as the second type - the chilli’s main weapon is Capsaicin.
What is Capsaicin?
Capsaicin is more like an irritant which interacts with the pain receptors in the mouth, skin or... really any other part of the body (yes, even there).
When Capsaicin reacts with these receptors, they send messages to the brain which are almost identical to those that are sent when you burn your mouth - in other words, you are literally feeling the burn!
An even stranger reaction from the body is the release of dopamine and endorphins in the brain. This reaction is so powerful that people can even feel a sensation of euphoria while eating very hot chillies, similar to a runner's high!
Is Spice a Flavor?
Spice is not a flavor like saltiness or sweetness, as it is our pain receptors, not our taste buds which react to the fiery chemical.
What Is the History of Spicy Food?
There are plenty of theories to chew on as to why our ancestors first tormented their tongues with spicy food.
Some claim it’s because ancient cultures needed to come up with inventive ways of preserving meat.
As far back as ancient Egypt, we know that societies have used mustard to extend the shelf life of their animal products. Archaeologists believe the taste of the spoilt meat was overpowered by the spicy coating, but there might be a little more sense to it than just masking a nasty odour.
Both Capsaicin and myrosinase have antibacterial properties and allowed the meat to be stored for longer periods of time without rotting. Mustard came to be such an important product that it was even buried with a number of Egyptian pharaohs!
Whether they were trying to make jerky out of their royalty or not - that’s up for you to decide. However, one fact universally agreed upon is that spicy food is generally more popular the closer to the equator you live, and the hotter the climate is.
Experts have argued that this penchant for spice in hot countries became part of the culture because of the body’s response to spicy food.
Alongside the burning sensation in the mouth, nose and throat, capsaicin is known to produce a raised body temperature, flushing of the skin and profuse sweating - and while it may not sound pleasant, all these responses help cool down the body.