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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.
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Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
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In a recent study, researchers examined how Christian nationalism is affecting the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- A new study used survey data to examine the interplay between Christian nationalism and incautious behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The researchers defined Christian nationalism as "an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture."
- The results showed that Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior.
A pastor at the chapel of the St. Josef Hospital on April 1, 2020 in Bochum, German
Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images<p>Christian nationalists, in general, believe the U.S. and God's will are tied together, and they want the government to embody conservative Christian values and symbols. As such, they also believe the nation's fate depends on how closely it adheres to Christianity.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unsurprisingly then, in the midst of the COVID‐19 pandemic, conservative pastors prophesied God's protection over the nation, citing America's righteous support for President Trump and the prolife agenda," the researchers write.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Correspondingly, the link between Christian nationalism and God's influence on how COVID‐19 impacts America can be seen in proclamations about God's divine judgment for its immorality―with the logic being that God is using the pandemic to draw wayward America <em>back </em>to himself, which assumes the two belong together."</p><p>The logical conclusion to this kind of thinking: America can save itself not through cautionary measures, like mask-wearing, but through devotion to God. What's more, it stands to reason that Christian nationalists are less likely to trust the media and scientists, given that these sources are generally not concerned with promoting a conservative, religious view of the world.</p><p>(The researchers note that they're unaware of any research directly linking Christian nationalism to distrust of media sources, but that they're almost certain the two are connected.)</p>
Predicted values of Americans' frequency of incautious behaviors during the COVID‐19 pandemic across values of Christian nationalism
Perry et al.<p>In the new study, the researchers examined three waves of results from the Public and Discourse Ethics Survey. One wave of the survey was issued in May, and it asked respondents to rate how often they engaged in both incautious and precautionary behaviors.</p><p>Incautious behaviors included things like "ate inside a restaurant" and "went shopping for nonessential items," while precautionary behaviors included "washed my hands more often than typical" and "wore a mask in public."</p><p>To measure Christian nationalism, the researchers asked respondents to rate how strongly they agree with statements like "the federal government should advocate Christian values" and "the success of the United States is part of God's plan."</p><p>The results suggest that, compared to other groups, Christian nationalists are far less likely to wear masks, socially distance and take other precautionary measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior during the pandemic, and the second leading predictor that Americans avoided taking precautionary measures."</p><p>But that's not to say that religious beliefs are causing Americans to reject mask-wearing or social distancing. In fact, when the study accounted for Christian nationalist beliefs, the results showed that Americans with high levels of religiosity were likely to take precautionary measures for COVID-19.</p>
Limitations<p>Still, the researchers note that they're theorizing about the connections between Christian nationalism and COVID-19 behaviors, not documenting them directly. What's more, they suggest that certain experiences — such as having a family member that contracts COVID-19 — might change a Christian nationalist's behaviors during the pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Limitations notwithstanding, the implications of this study are important for understanding Americans' curious inability to quickly implement informed and reasonable strategies to overcome the threat of COVID‐19, an inability that has likely cost thousands of lives," they write.</p>
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