Heat, sweat, burning sensation, pain… and we love it. There is something about spiciness that keeps us coming back. Maybe it is the thrill of the burn or the excitement of the pain. To understand why we like spicy food, that causes us pain, we need to know the science behind it.
The tongue is one of the most complex organs in our body; it can provide us with one of the best sensations that human beings can experience: taste.
This muscular organ has numerous receptors that, when activated by food, trigger sensations and send messages to our brain, giving us the ability to identify sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (amino acids).
So, we can say that something tastes spicy, but it is not really a taste, is a reaction; a sensation in our tongues created by chemical properties that awaken our polymodal nociceptors (nerve endings that carry pain sensation to the brain.)
Have you ever wondered, if it hurts so much, why do we love spicy food? Is there some kind of masochistic impulse that drives us blind to feel the exciting pain of spice? Well, yes and no. It does have a logical and biological explanation.
See, whenever heat-sensitive receptors are in contact with these spicy molecules, they send the message to your brain that you are literally on fire; the brain responds in ‘danger mode‘ by releasing endorphins. Endorphins block the nerves’ ability to transmit pain signals, acting as a natural pain reliever. So, every time we eat spicy food, we trigger a euphoric feeling similar to a runner’s high.
So, the receptors just send your brain the message that you are on fire, now what? this is when all your system begins to act in overheating mode. To cool down, your body triggers mechanisms in the hypothalamus that activate all the sweating glands to thermoregulate your body. Sweat has the mission to react with the temperature in the environment and evaporate, cooling you down. Another side effect of this cooling protocol is flushing. Hypothalamus sends signals to your blood vessels under your skin to dilate and dissipate heat.
We could separate spicy into more than 100 five different types because the molecules that contain these chemicals components are entirely different products with their own characteristics. But science has identified main chemical compounds that are present in most of the ingredients we consider fall into the ‘spicy category’:
This compound is a colorless oil responsible for the pungent taste of wasabi, mustard, and horseradish. It produces a burning sensation and irritates the nasal passages more than the tongue itself. It can make your eyes water, burn your palate, and inflame your nasal passages.
This is the spicy compound responsible for the heat in black and white peppercorns. It leaves a peppery burning aftertaste due to the activation of the TRPV1 receptor with a similar effect to capsaicin. The reaction produced in these receptors mimics high temperatures on the body, which results in an attempt of our brain to regulate the heat and alerting the whole system of ‘danger.’
This one is a compound formed by a chemical reaction produced when raw garlic is chopped or crushed, creating a pungent, sulfur-containing molecule similar to Allyl Isothiocyanate (the one in wasabi). It results in the sensation of sting, fire, and swelling in the mouth.
Just like piperine and capsaicin, it activates TRPV1 ion channels. It has a numbing effect on your lips, tongue, and even throat (!), accompanied by a burning sensation.
When it is cooked, gingerol converts into a slightly sweeter form called zingerone. Both compounds activate TRPV1. They produce a warm, pungent sensation in the mouth.
This molecule derives from capsaicinoids (found in hot peppers), but it is the one that gives cinnamon its flavor and odor. Significant amounts of cinnamaldehyde produce cough reflex, runny nose, and burning sensation (oh! the burn).
This is the most active component of chili peppers. It is considered as an irritant that produces a burning sensation with any tissue it comes in contact with. Watery eyes, sneezing and a runny nose are the very glamorous reactions to this molecule.
Capsaicin might be the most common spicy molecules to be used in food products, in fact, there is a specialized scale to measure the concentration of capsaicinoids in chili peppers. Its creator was an American pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville. In 1912 he created a test to determine the pungency of each chili pepper by extracting capsaicin oil from a dried pepper and mixing it with a solution of water and sugar. A panel of taste-testers have to discern whether they can perceive or can barely detect the heat of the pepper; Then the pepper is assigned Scoville units based on how much the oil was diluted with water in order to reach the no detection point.
Its creator was an American pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville. In 1912 he created a test to determine the pungency of each chili pepper by extracting capsaicin oil from a dried pepper and mixing it with a solution of water and sugar. A panel of taste-testers have to discern whether they can perceive or can barely detect the heat of the pepper; Then the pepper is assigned Scoville units based on how much the oil was diluted with water in order to reach the no detection point.
So now that you know about the science of spiciness and how it can make you happy, go ahead try these spicy recipes. And after, follow these tips to neutralize the glorious burn!