If you’re anything like us, you probably like food. Honestly, you probably like eating. Even if you don’t you should probably respect the action–since it keeps you alive. Anyway, you’re also probably not a fan of pain either, which is equally fair. Pain normally means your body is damaged in some way; or at least something bad is happening. Instinctively, you don’t want to be in pain. So we love food, and we hate pain. But then, why do we eat spicy food–which to many–makes it feel like their mouth is burning? Or perhaps a better question is: why do we like spicy food in the first place?
Why Is Spicy Food Spicy?
We’ve talked about what makes food spicy on the Blog before. There are lots of different types of spicy foods, and lots of different compounds that can give food a kick. But when it comes to peppers, which feature in many popular spicy foods, we’re looking at capsaicin. Unsurprisingly, anything that falls within the Capsicum plant genus has capsaicin in its fruit and seeds (or other plant parts).
In terms of evolution, capsaicin exists as a defense against mammals. The seeds of these plants are spread by birds, whose jaws cannot crush the seeds (so after they leave the birds’ digestive system, the seeds can germinate really far away). Mammals can destroy seeds with molars, and capsaicin being spicy theoretically keeps mammals from eating the seeds. Humans didn’t get the mammalian memo, we guess.
Anyway, capsaicin activates the pain receptors in the tongue (as well as other parts of the body, we’ll get to that). That activation is what gives many spicy foods the sensation of “heat” to those who enjoy it. Side note; spearmint activates similar receptors, explaining the “cold” sensation.
You probably figured it out by knowing the name “pepper spray,” but capsaicin is often found in those products as well. We don’t advise you use your personal defense canister to give your next pasta some zest, however.
How Do We Define Spicy?
Spicy food is generally measured in Scovilles. Well, more specifically, it’s measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). These units are normally reserved for things high in capsaicinoid concentration (basically things that are like capsaicin, while also including capsaicin).
The way SHU are determined is a bit of a fun time. There’s a lot of extracting and distilling of a given dried pepper. Then the capsaicinoids are diluted into sugar water. This water is given to a panel of tasters. It doesn’t take a food scientist to guess that this probably doesn’t taste good.
The water is diluted again and again for the tasters until 3 of them cannot taste the “spicy heat” anymore. How many times the solution was diluted determines how spicy something is in SHU.
There’s also calculating SHU by pungency, which is determined by some math regarding how much capsaicinoids are in the thing.
Is Spicy Food Bad for You?
Generally speaking, we avoid things that hurt. However, we do recognize that there are things that might cause pain–but that aren’t actually bad for you. Turns out, spicy foods are in that bucket. In fact, some spicy foods might even be good for your health.
While your spicy soup might be targeting the pain receptors in your tongue, they don’t actually do anything to it. They don’t seem to cause any significant damage to your digestive system either.
If you do think spicy food is terrible for you, you’ve probably tried to drink a bunch of water as a reflex. Don’t do that; capsaicinoids aren’t water soluble, so you’ll just be getting more spicy all over the place.
So Why Do We Like Spicy Food?
This explanation of spicy food all brings us back to our original question. And it turns out, the core of the answer isn’t too complicated. Well, it is brain chemistry so it’s sorta complicated. But we mean that it’s relatively easy to explain.
Once you get over the heat part of spicy foods, you’ll find that these spices releases endorphins–the same ones associated with a runner’s high. So ultimately, you can eat some spicy chicken wings instead of going on that morning run.
That was a joke. Please be healthy.
Think you know your spicy? Try your hand looking through FDA general spices here.