A pleasure to burn: Why do people like spicy foods?

Spicy foods are enjoyed the world over, but scientists don't know why people partake in culinary masochism.

  • Humans are the only animals known to willingly eat foods that cause irritation, discomfort, and even pain.
  • Theories for why range from thrill-seeking behavior to an evolutionary adaptation for seeking foods that reduce pathogens.
  • Taste results from an interplay of genes, culture, memory, and personality, a complex design that scientists are only now beginning to understand.

If a Martian anthropologist found its way to a Clifton Chili Club Chili Eating Contest, it would discover one the universe's true idiosyncrasies. Here, it would witness a group of bipedal primates cheering on other primates as they torture themselves with fruits that set their mouths on simulated fire.

By extraterrestrial standards, the rules are simple. The competition asks participants to nosh a chili pepper to the stalk. If they quit, throw up, or drink a glass of milk — which sits before them with Tantalus-like temptation — they are disqualified. Each round introduces a new pepper of increasing "pungency," that burning heat as measured by the Scoville scale.

Things start easily enough with the dainty Padron pepper, which averages around 500 Scoville heat units (SHU). By round 3, participants enjoy a classic jalapeno (3,000-6,000 SHU). Round 9 introduces the habanero (300,000 SHU). At this point, most participants are suffering inflamed eyes and molten saliva draining into their eruptively churning stomachs. The culling has begun.

In the final round, three competitors squared off against the Carolina reaper, the world's hottest chili. Averaging 1,641,183 SHU, it is more than 250 times hotter than a jalapeno.

Which leads our Martian anthropologist to ask, why? Even setting aside the extremes of a chili eating contest, why do people all over the world enjoy spicy foods or any food that causes pain and irritation? What is going on with these funny Earth monkeys?

Capsaicin is for the birds

A marine undergoes pepper spray training. The ingredient that gives pepper spray its debilitating sting, capsaicin, is the same ingredient that gives chilies their beloved fire. Image source: Cpl. Neysa Huertas Quinones/U.S.A Marine Corp

The truth is scientists — human scientists, that is — don't know how people acquired a taste for tortuous cuisine. They're not even sure why peppers began to sport capsaicin, the molecular compound that triggers your tongue's pain sensors, in the first place.

Some evidence suggests that pepper plants use capsaicin as a mammalian repellent. That may seem odd, as most plants try to entice animals to spread their seeds with sweet flesh and enticing colors — not detract them with promises of a seared tongue.

But mammals' strong stomach acids break down pepper seeds, reducing the plants' fecundity. Birds' digestive tracts, on the other hand, allow the seeds to pass through unharmed and be dispersed widely. Not coincidentally, birds aren't sensitive to capsaicin. Their taste receptors don't register its pungency.

But there is also evidence that capsaicin is a natural antifungal. Studies have shown that pepper plants in fungal-rich environments produce more of the compound than those from drier environments.

Both theories explain the evolutionary advantages capsaicin provides the pepper planet. We simply don't know which one, or perhaps another, was the impetus for the pepper plant to favor capsaicin-fueled fruit.

Those who favor fire

The world's hottest pepper, the Carolina reaper, features a warning red color and a malicious looking spike, practically daring thrill seekers to give it a go. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Getting back to people, there are several vying theories as to how humans developed a taste for pain. One is that we simply enjoy the thrill of it. Dr. Paul Rozin, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that people use spicy foods as a type of "constrained risk" or "benign masochism."

Eating spicy foods triggers a mild defense response in us. Our heart rates rise, our breathing increases, and our adrenaline starts to flow. We feel alive. It's the same thrill-seeking behavior exhibited by bungee jumping, roller coasters, and horror movies. The thrill of pain rejuvenates us, while we secretly know all will be well in the end.

The Eastnor Castle Chili Festival Chili Eating Contest seems to support Rozin's theory. While some people can get a thrill out of a roller coaster, others need to jump off a bridge with a literal lifeline tied to their legs. Similarly, while some people can get a jolt from a jalapeno or habanero, others require the Carolina reaper to jump start their heart. And as we desensitize ourselves to one thrill, a more extreme one must then take its place as evinced by the eternal quest for an ever-hotter pepper or mouth-melting hot sauce.

Add to that the sense of camaraderie and community that naturally comes with food, and our Martian anthropologist may yet see the appeal.

"Humans and only humans get to enjoy events that are innately negative, that produce emotions or feelings that we are programmed to avoid when we come to realize that they are actually not threats," Rozin told the New York Times. "Mind over body. My body thinks I'm in trouble, but I know I'm not."

Further supporting Rozin's theory is that all other mammals avoid spicy, painful foods. In fact, we know of only one other mammal that shares a taste for peppers: the Chinese tree shrew. But tree shrews aren't nature's chili-heads. It has instead evolved taste receptors that makes it less sensitive to capsaicin, thus expanding its food options. In other words, the shrew doesn't take pleasure in a smoldering snack like we do.

An acquired taste

A spice seller in Luxor, Egypt. A survey of traditional recipes show that spices are used extensively in the cuisine from cultures in tropical climes. (Photo: Tour d'Afrique / Flickr)

Another theory points to spicy foods' antifungal and antibacterial properties. In this light, humans have culturally and genetically evolved a preference for spicy foods because they protect us from microscopic assailants. When our taste buds encounter pungency, it's a signal to our brains that the food is cleaner.

A report published in the Quarterly Review of Biology looked at "[m]ore than 4,570 recipes from 93 cookbooks representing traditional, meat-based cuisines of 36 countries," as well as the antibacterial properties of the spices used. Their report found that where spoiled food is more of an issue, spices are more frequently used:

Countries with hotter climates used spices more frequently than countries with cooler climates. Indeed, in hot countries nearly every meat-based recipe calls for at least one spice, and most include many spices, especially the potent spices, whereas in cooler countries substantial fractions of dishes are prepared without spices, or with just a few.

Beyond peppers, the research looked at less pungent preservatives. Garlic, onion, cumin, thyme and black pepper were all found to have antibacterial properties. Paul Sherman, an evolutionary biologist and one of the report's authors, noted that lab tests on 30 common spices have shown that "at least half of them kill or inhibit 75 [percent] of the bacteria they have been tested on."

Sherman also looked at vegetable recipes and found that spices are less common in them than meat dishes. This finding bolsters the theory. If spices were only about the taste, one would expect them to be found in equal proportions. It also deflates another theory that spices are preferred for their nutritional value, as vegetables are eaten in much greater quantities.

As Sherman puts it: "Everything we do with food — drying, cooking, smoking, salting, or adding spices — is an attempt to keep from being poisoned by our microscopic competitors. They're constantly mutating and evolving to stay ahead of us. One way we reduce food-borne illnesses is to add another spice to the recipe."

These two hypothesis may prove to line up with further research. It's possible our evolution led us to enjoy pungent food, while our natural thrill seeking behavior spurred us to cultivate peppers of unnatural heat.

Why we like what we like

A baby eats a bell pepper with his father. Preference for spicy foods, like all foods, is the result of a complex interplay of genes, culture, memory, and personality. (Photo: rabble / Flickr)

Of course, this article has ignored one crucial point: Not everybody likes the same level of heat and some people don't enjoy spicy foods at all. If people evolved a taste for spice, either for the thrill or its cleaning properties, why don't all people enjoy a nice chili eating contest?

As will surprise no one, the answer is that taste is complex. The number bumps of on your tongue, called papillae, can make you a "supertaster" or a "subtaster." Genes influence how your taste preceptors perceive flavors like bitterness. A bad childhood experience can turn you off to a food for life. And the interplay between culture and taste preference, as argued by John Hayes, is a chicken and egg problem.

"Is it that cultures use a ton of cilantro have a low proportion of people who find it soapy? Or, the other possibility is it just part of the cuisine so they just learn to deal with it," Hayes, associate professor of food science at Pennsylvania State University told U.S. News. "We don't know."

Hayes's research has even shown a link between taste and personality. In a 2013 survey, he found a positive correlation between sensation-seeking and reward-sensitive personality types and those who liked spicy foods. This supports Rozin, but the antibacterial hypothesis isn't out yet.

While not everybody likes spicy food, other popular flavors display bactericidal properties, too. Sherman's study showed that mint and sour foods, like lemons and limes, are also bacteria inhibitors.

And your brain may still register a food's clean burn, even if it isn't consciously palpable. When peppers were introduced to Europe, the Hungarians cultivated them into bell peppers. Sweeter and less pungent, the bell pepper nevertheless maintains antibacterial properties. And research out of the University of Southern California found that the carbon dioxide in fizzy drinks triggers a burning sensation in our pain sensors, the same response as horseradish albeit at a lower intensity. (Soda, it seems, hurts you in more ways than empty calories.)

Taken together, our understanding of taste would give any Martian anthropologist, and our human scientists, a lot to consider. Ultimately, how one species of primates came to mix pain, pleasure, and sustenance remains a tasty mystery.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

Videos
  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.

Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
popular

In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.


Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Do human beings have a magnetic sense? Biologists know other animals do. They think it helps creatures including bees, turtles and birds navigate through the world.

Keep reading Show less