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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.
The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
- Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
- To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
COVID-19 deepens U.S. health disparities<p>Communities on the pernicious side of America's health disparities have their unique histories, environments, and social structures. They are spread across the United States, but they all have one thing in common.</p><p>"There is one common divide in American communities, and that is poverty," said <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/about/leadership/debbie-salas-lopez" target="_blank">Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH</a>, senior vice president of community and population health at Northwell Health. "That is the undercurrent that manifests poor health, poor health outcomes, or poor health prognoses for future wellbeing."</p><p>Social determinants have far-reaching effects on health, and poor communities have unfavorable social determinants. To pick one of many examples, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/27/913612554/a-crisis-within-a-crisis-food-insecurity-and-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">food insecurity</a> reduces access to quality food, leading to poor health and communal endemics of chronic medical conditions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified some of these conditions, such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as increasing the risk of developing a severe case of coronavirus.</p><p>The pandemic didn't create poverty or food insecurity, but it exacerbated both, and the results have been catastrophic. A study published this summer in the <em><a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05971-3" target="_blank">Journal of General Internal Medicine</a></em> suggested that "social factors such as income inequality may explain why some parts of the USA are hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than others."</p><p>That's not to say better-off families in the U.S. weren't harmed. A <a href="https://voxeu.org/article/poverty-inequality-and-covid-19-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper from the Centre for Economic Policy Research</a> noted that families in counties with a higher median income experienced adjustment costs associated with the pandemic—for example, lowering income-earning interactions to align with social distancing policies. However, the paper found that the costs of social distancing were much greater for poorer families, who cannot easily alter their living circumstances, which often include more individuals living in one home and a reliance on mass transit to reach work and grocery stores. They are also disproportionately represented in essential jobs, such as retail, transportation, and health care, where maintaining physical distance can be all but impossible.</p><p>The paper also cited a positive correlation between higher income inequality and higher rates of coronavirus infection. "Our interpretation is that poorer people are less able to protect themselves, which leads them to different choices—they face a steeper trade-off between their health and their economic welfare in the context of the threats posed by COVID-19," the authors wrote.</p><p>"There are so many pandemics that this pandemic has exacerbated," Dr. Salas-Lopez noted.</p><p>One example is the health-wealth gap. The mental stressors of maintaining a low socioeconomic status, especially in the face of extreme affluence, can have a physically degrading impact on health. <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/index.cfm/_api/render/file/?method=inline&fileID=123ECD96-EF81-46F6-983D2AE9A45FA354" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Writing on this gap</a>, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, notes that socioeconomic stressors can increase blood pressure, reduce insulin response, increase chronic inflammation, and impair the prefrontal cortex and other brain functions through anxiety, depression, and cognitive load. </p><p>"Thus, from the macro level of entire body systems to the micro level of individual chromosomes, poverty finds a way to produce wear and tear," Sapolsky writes. "It is outrageous that if children are born into the wrong family, they will be predisposed toward poor health by the time they start to learn the alphabet."</p>Research on the economic and mental health fallout of COVID-19 is showing two things: That unemployment is hitting <a href="https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/09/24/economic-fallout-from-covid-19-continues-to-hit-lower-income-americans-the-hardest/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">low-income and young Americans</a> most during the pandemic, potentially widening the health-wealth gap further; and that the pandemic not only exacerbates mental health stressors, but is doing so at clinically relevant levels. As <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7413844/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the authors of one review</a> wrote, the pandemic's effects on mental health is itself an international public health priority.
Working to close the health gap<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5MDk1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTYyMzQzMn0.KSFpXH7yHYrfVPtfgcxZqAHHYzCnC2bFxwSrJqBbH4I/img.jpg?width=980" id="b40e2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1b9035370ab7b02a0dc00758e494412b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Northwell Health coronavirus testing center at Greater Springfield Community Church.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>Novel coronavirus may spread and infect indiscriminately, but pre-existing conditions, environmental stressors, and a lack of access to care and resources increase the risk of infection. These social determinants make the pandemic more dangerous, and erode communities' and families' abilities to heal from health crises that pre-date the pandemic.</p><p>How do we eliminate these divides? Dr. Salas-Lopez says the first step is recognition. "We have to open our eyes to see the suffering around us," she said. "Northwell has not shied away from that."</p><p>"We are steadfast in improving health outcomes for our vulnerable and underrepresented communities that have suffered because of the prevalence of chronic disease, a problem that led to the disproportionately higher death rate among African-Americans and Latinos during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Michael Dowling, Northwell's president and CEO. "We are committed to using every tool at our disposal—as a provider of health care, employer, purchaser and investor—to combat disparities and ensure the <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/education-and-resources/community-engagement/center-for-equity-of-care" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">equity of care</a> that everyone deserves." </p><p>With the need recognized, Dr. Salas-Lopez calls for health care systems to travel upstream and be proactive in those hard-hit communities. This requires health care systems to play a strong role, but not a unilateral one. They must build <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/news/insights/faith-based-leaders-are-the-key-to-improving-community-health" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">partnerships with leaders in those communities</a> and utilize those to ensure relationships last beyond the current crisis. </p><p>"We must meet with community leaders and talk to them to get their perspective on what they believe the community needs are and should be for the future. Together, we can co-create a plan to measurably improve [community] health and also to be ready for whatever comes next," she said.</p><p>Northwell has built relationships with local faith-based and community organizations in underserved communities of color. Those partnerships enabled Northwell to test more than 65,000 people across the metro New York region. The health system also offered education on coronavirus and precautions to curb its spread.</p><p>These initiatives began the process of building trust—trust that Northwell has counted on to return to these communities to administer flu vaccines to prepare for what experts fear may be a difficult flu season.</p><p>While Northwell has begun building bridges across the divides of the New York area, much will still need to be done to cure U.S. health care overall. There is hope that the COVID pandemic will awaken us to the deep disparities in the US.</p><p>"COVID has changed our world. We have to seize this opportunity, this pandemic, this crisis to do better," Dr. Salas-Lopez said. "Provide better care. Provide better health. Be better partners. Be better community citizens. And treat each other with respect and dignity.</p><p>"We need to find ways to unify this country because we're all human beings. We're all created equal, and we believe that health is one of those important rights."</p>
Astronomers spot an object heading into Earth orbit.
Minimoons<p>Scientists have confirmed just two prior minimoons. One was <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_RH120" target="_blank">2006 RH120</a>, which orbited us from September 2006 to June 2007. The other was <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_CD3" target="_blank">2020 CD3</a>, which got stuck in the 2015–2016 timeframe, and is believed to gotten away in May 2020.</p><p>2020 SO, the new kid on the block, is expected to arrive in October 2020 and pop out of orbit in May 2021.</p><div id="37962" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4c0fc8a2cba6536ea4cd960ebed3e6e"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1307729521869611008" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Asteroid 2020 SO may get captured by Earth from Oct 2020 - May 2021. Current nominal trajectory shows shows capture… https://t.co/F5utxRvN6Z</div> — Tony Dunn (@Tony Dunn)<a href="https://twitter.com/tony873004/statuses/1307729521869611008">1600621989.0</a></blockquote></div>
Identifying 2020 SO<p>The first clue 2020 SO isn't your ordinary asteroid is its exceptionally low velocity. It's traveling much more slowly that a typical asteroid — their <a href="https://www.lpi.usra.edu/exploration/training/illustrations/craterMechanics/" target="_blank">average rate of travel</a> <a href="https://www.lpi.usra.edu/exploration/training/illustrations/craterMechanics/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"></a>is 18 kilometers (58,000 feet) per second. Even <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_rock" target="_blank">moon rocks</a> sent careening into Earth orbit by impacts on the lunar surface outpace pokey 2020 SO.</p><p>For another thing, 2020 SO has an orbital path very similar to Earth's, lasting about one Earth year. It's also just slightly less circular than our own orbit, from which it's barely tilted off-axis.</p><p>So, what is it? <a href="https://cneos.jpl.nasa.gov/ca/" target="_blank">NASA estimates</a> that the object has dimensions very reminiscent of a discarded Centaur rocket stage from the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surveyor_2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Surveyor 2 mission</a> that landed an unmanned craft on the moon. Back in the day, rocket stages were jettisoned as craft were aimed toward their desired position. This stuff, if released high enough, remains in space. It appears that this Centaur rocket, launched in September 1966, is now making its way back homeward, at least for a little bit.</p><p>When 2020 SO arrives at its closest point in December, the rocket is expected to be about 50,000 kilometers from Earth. Its next closest approach is much further: 220,000 kilometers, in February 2021.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQzMDk3NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODg1MTQ1MX0.HGknDwqp0GmeuczKY_AS7vrPG7KMFUc_XO95tNoI2xo/img.jpg?width=980" id="e5cda" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="85eb1f790d8c3ee5b261f7ba13eaa5e1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Centaur rocket stage" />
Centaur rocket stage
What we may be able to learn<p>Earthly space programs being as young as they are, scientists would love to know what's happened to our rocket during a half century in space.</p><p>While 2020 SO won't get close enough to drop into our atmosphere, its slow progress has scientists hopeful that they'll still get some kind of a decent look at it.</p><p>Spectroscopy may be able to reveal what the rocket's surface is like now — has any of its paint survived, for example? Of course, being out in space, it's likely to have been hit by lots of dust and micrometeorites, so the current state of its surfaces is also of interest. Experts are curious to know how reflective the rocket is at this point, valuable information that can help planners of future long-term missions anticipate how well a craft out in space for extended periods will remain able to reflect sunlight.</p>
Shannon Lee shares lessons from her father in her new book, "Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee."
- Bruce Lee would have turned 80 years old on November 27, 2020. The legendary actor and martial artist's daughter, Shannon Lee, shares some of his wisdom and his philosophy on self help in a new book titled "Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee."
- In this video, Shannon shares a story of the fight that led to her father beginning a deeper philosophical journey, and how that informed his unique expression of martial arts called Jeet Kune Do.
- One lesson passed down from Bruce Lee was his use and placement of physical symbols as a way to help "cement for yourself this new way of being, or this new lesson you've learned." By working on ourselves (with the right tools), we can develop the skills necessary to rise and conquer new challenges.
How to deal with "epistemic exhaustion."