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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 oddities. 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 tantalizing 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 animals?
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.
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 understand the ritual.
"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 a concern, spices are more frequently used. The authors write:
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.
These alien-like creatures are virtually invisible in the deep sea.
- A team of marine biologists used nets to catch 16 species of deep-sea fish that have evolved the ability to be virtually invisible to prey and predators.
- "Ultra-black" skin seems to be an evolutionary adaptation that helps fish camouflage themselves in the deep sea, which is illuminated by bioluminescent organisms.
- There are likely more, and potentially much darker, ultra-black fish lurking deep in the ocean.
A team of marine biologists has discovered 16 species of "ultra-black" fish that absorb more than 99 percent of the light that hits their skin, making them virtually invisible to other deep-sea fish.
The researchers, who published their findings Thursday in Current Biology, caught the species after dropping nets more than 200 meters deep near California's Monterey Bay. At those depths, sunlight fizzles out. That's one reason why many deep-sea species have evolved the ability to illuminate the dark waters through bioluminescence.
But what if deep-sea fish don't want to be spotted? To counter bioluminescence, some species have evolved ultra-black skin that's exceptionally good at absorbing light. Only a few other species are known to possess this strange trait, including birds of paradise and some spiders and butterflies.
The Pacific blackdragon
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
When researchers first saw the deep-sea species, it wasn't immediately obvious that their skin was ultra-black. Then, marine biologist Karen Osborn, a co-author on the new paper, noticed something strange about the photos she took of the fish.
"I had tried to take pictures of deep-sea fish before and got nothing but these really horrible pictures, where you can't see any detail," Osborn told Wired. "How is it that I can shine two strobe lights at them and all that light just disappears?"
After examining samples of fish skin under the microscope, the researchers discovered that the fish skin contains a layer of organelles called melanosomes, which contain melanin, the same pigment that gives color to human skin and hair. This layer of melanosomes absorbs most of the light that hits them.
A crested bigscale
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
"But what isn't absorbed side-scatters into the layer, and it's absorbed by the neighboring pigments that are all packed right up close to it," Osborn told Wired. "And so what they've done is create this super-efficient, very-little-material system where they can basically build a light trap with just the pigment particles and nothing else."
The result? Strange and terrifying deep-sea species, like the crested bigscale, fangtooth, and Pacific blackdragon, all of which appear in the deep sea as barely more than faint silhouettes.
David Csepp, NMFS/AKFSC/ABL
But interestingly, this unique disappearing trick wasn't passed on to these species by a common ancestor. Rather, they each developed it independently. As such, the different species use their ultra-blackness for different purposes. For example, the threadfin dragonfish only has ultra-black skin during its adolescent years, when it's rather defenseless, as Wired notes.
Other fish—like the oneirodes species, which use bioluminescent lures to bait prey—probably evolved ultra-black skin to avoid reflecting the light their own bodies produce. Meanwhile, species like C. acclinidens only have ultra-black skin around their gut, possibly to hide light of bioluminescent fish they've eaten.
Given that these newly described species are just ones that this team found off the coast of California, there are likely many more, and possibly much darker, ultra-black fish swimming in the deep ocean.
Information may not seem like something physical, yet it has become a central concern for physicists. A wonderful new book explores the importance of the "dataome" for the physical, biological, and human worlds.
- The most important current topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all — information, which is central to thermodynamics and perhaps the universe itself.
- The "dataome" is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls.
- The dataome is vast and growing everyday, sucking up an ever increasing share of the energy humans produce.
Physics is a field that is supposed to study real stuff. By real, I mean things like matter and energy. Matter is, of course, the kind of stuff you can hold in your hand. Energy may seem a little more abstract, but its reality is pretty apparent, appearing in the form of motion or gravity or electromagnetic fields.
What has become apparent recently, however, is the importance to physics of something that seems somewhat less real: information. From black holes to quantum mechanics to understanding the physics of life, information has risen to become a principal concern of many physicists in many domains. This new centrality of information is why you really need to read astrophysicist Caleb Scharf's new book The Ascent of Information: Books, Bits, Machines, and Life's Unending Algorithms.
Scharf is currently the director of the Astrobiology Program at Columbia University. He is also the author of four other books as well as a regular contributor to Scientific American.
(Full disclosure: Scharf and I have been collaborators on a scientific project involving the Fermi Paradox, so I was a big fan before I read this new book. Of course, the reason why I collaborated with him is because I really like the way he thinks, and his creativity in tackling tough problems is on full display in The Ascent of Information.)
What is the dataome?
In his new book, Scharf is seeking a deeper understanding of what he calls the "dataome." This is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls. The book opens with a compelling exploration of how Shakespeare's works, which began as scribbles on a page, have gone on to have lives of their own in the dataome. Through reprintings in different languages, recordings of performances, movie adaptations, comic books, and so on, Shakespeare's works are now a permanent part of the vast swirling ensemble of information that constitutes the human dataome.
I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
But the dataome does not just live in our heads. Scharf takes us on a proper physicist's journey through the dataome, showing us how information can never be divorced from energy. Your brain needs the chemical energy from food you ate this morning to read, process, and interpret these words. One of the most engaging parts of the book is when Scharf details just how much energy and real physical space our data-hungry world consumes as it adds to the dataome. For example, the Hohhot Data Center in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China is made of vast "farms" of data processing servers covering 245 acres of real estate. A single application like Bitcoin, Scharf tells us, consumes 7.7 gigawatts per year, equivalent to the output of half a dozen nuclear reactors!
Information is everywhere
But the dataome is not just about energy. Entropy is central to the story as well. Scharf takes the reader through a beautifully crafted discussion of information and the science of thermodynamics. This is where the links between energy, entropy, the limits of useful work, and probability all become profoundly connected to the definition of information.
The second law of thermodynamics tells us that you cannot use all of a given amount of energy to do useful work. Some of that energy must be wasted by getting turned into heat. Entropy is the physicist's way of measuring that waste (which can also be thought of as disorder). Scharf takes the reader through the basic relations of thermodynamics and then shows how entropy became intimately linked with information. It was Claude Shannon's brilliant work in the 1940s that showed how information — bits — could be defined for communication and computation as an entropy associated with the redundancy of strings of symbols. That was the link tying the physical world of physics explicitly to the informational and computational world of the dataome.
The best parts of the book are where Scharf unpacks how information makes its appearance in biology. From the data storage and processing that occurs with every strand of DNA, to the tangled pathways that define evolutionary dynamics, Scharf demonstrates how life is what happens to physics and chemistry when information matters. I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
The physics of information
There are a lot of popular physics books out there about black holes and exoplanets and other cool stuff. But right now, I feel like the most important topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all. Information is a relatively new addition to the physics bestiary, making it even more compelling. If you are looking for a good introduction to how that is so, The Ascent of Information is a good place to start.
A new study tested to what extent dogs can sense human deception.
Is humanity's best friend catching on to our shenanigans? Researchers at the University of Vienna discovered that dogs can in certain cases know when people are lying.
The scientists carried out a study with hundreds of dogs to determine to what extent dogs could spot deception. The team's new paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, outlined experiments that tested whether dogs, like humans, have some inner sense of how to assess truthfulness.
As the researchers wrote in their paper, "Among non-primates, dogs (Canis familiaris) constitute a particularly interesting case, as their social environment has been shared with humans for at least 14,000 years. For this reason, dogs have been considered as a model species for the comparative investigation of socio-cognitive abilities." The investigation focused specifically on understanding if dogs were "sensitive to some mental or psychological states of humans."
The experiments involved 260 dogs, which were made to listen to advice from a human "communicator" whom they did not know. The human told them which one of two bowls had a treat hidden inside by touching it and saying, "Look, this is very good!" If the dogs took the person's advice, they would get the treat.
Once they established the trust of the dogs, the researchers then complicated the experience by letting dogs watch another human that they did not know transfer the treat from one bowl to another. In some cases, the original communicator would also be present to watch but not always.
The findings revealed that half of the dogs did not follow the advice of the communicator if that person was not present when the food was switched to a different bowl. The dogs had a sense that this human could not have known the true location of the treat. Furthermore, two-thirds of the dogs ignored the human's suggestion if she did see the food switch but pointed to the wrong bowl. The dogs figured out the human was lying to them.
Photos of experiments showing the dog, human communicator, and person hiding the treat. Credit: Lucrezia Lonardo et al / Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
"We thought dogs would behave like children under age five and apes, but now we speculate that perhaps dogs can understand when someone is being deceitful," co-author Ludwig Huber from the University of Vienna told New Scientist. "Maybe they think, 'This person has the same knowledge as me, and is nevertheless giving me the wrong [information].' It's possible they could see that as intentionally misleading, which is lying."
This is not the first time such experiments have been carried out. Previously, children under age five, macaques, and chimps were tested in a similar way. It turned out that children and other animals were more likely than dogs to listen to the advice of the liars. Notably, among the dogs, terriers were found to be more like children and apes, more eagerly following false suggestions.