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I used to hate spice — and to an extent, I still do. What’s with the fire in your mouth, washing through your stomach and guts, leaving a trail of numbness? That no amount of liquid seems to appease? What’s there to taste in when it’s just burning?
It all clicked after a plate of spaghetti. After being away at college for four years, I missed my mom’s spaghetti. Admittedly, I don’t know if it’s because it’s Mom’s Spaghetti or My Mom’s Spaghetti, but I beg for it every so often. Well, my family had gotten back from a trip to Budapest, and we had picked up some local paprika to bring back. An avid paprika sprinkler, I decided to test out some of that Hungarian heat into the tomato sauce… and that is when I came to understand that savory form of self-flagellating.
From then on, I started gently experimenting with my tolerance for heat. But also, I was asking myself all kinds of questions about this weird sensation.
Pungency, otherwise known as “heat” or “spice” by everyday terms, is caused by an active component named capsaicin. It is considered an irritant to us because of its effect, whether that be tingling fingertips, a burning mouth, or eye irritation from cooking with its fumes. Unless allergic though, the effects are illusory and pose us no threat. Capsaicin can be found in peppers, including cayenne, chipotle, paprika, jalapeno, and even bell peppers.
The various manipulations of the peppers later determine how hot it will actually be. This is why we have milder or even sweet versions of paprika; most, or all, of its capsaicin has been taken out. The Scoville scale is the most frequently used metric by which the pungency of ingredients is measured.
Capsaicin is at the root of many interesting medical questions. Can capsaicin benefit health? Does it have anti-bacterial properties? What about cultures that use heat often in their meals?
There are hypothesis, but sadly few definitive answers. As explored in Billing & Sherman (1998), one speculation was that the heat could kick start perspiration, our body’s way of regulating our temperature, which would benefit us eating spicy in warm weather. However, that didn’t seem to completely explain why we gravitate towards such foods, or even why we still use it. Nevertheless, capsaicin does possess anti-bacterial components, that is effective in fighting off food borne diseases. It may explain why cultures geographically located in hotter climates, with historically poor conservation rates, could survive without a refrigeration system.
However, it doesn’t paint the entire picture. The overwhelming evidence, and frankly easiest scenario is that humans simply enjoy spicy food.
Desensitization. We simply get used to it, in gradual increments of spice usage in our food. If we don’t think it to be spicy anymore, and our bodies are used to that level of heat, is it really spicy at that point? Just like many other sensation-seeking consumption, our tolerance dictates how our bodies perceive the effects, amounts and contexts of the product. It also brings in the importance of culture — the desensitization process begins earlier in places whose cuisines incorporate capsaicins more consistently.
That said, studies such as Wang et al. (2016) on the relationship between spiciness and risk seeking has tried to determine who gravitates towards spiciness, particularly in cultures where heat is not the local norm. Results show that there is a positive correlation (not causation!) between risk-seeking individuals and liking spicy food. Essentially, the burning and painful sensation creates a type of adrenaline. We’ve all seen or heard of the Hot Ones ads probing us into watching celebrities’ torture, or Buffalo Wild Wing’s Blazin’ Challenge involving eating 12 of their spiciest hot wings in under six minutes. It’s been spun to become a competitive, bragging right, to be able to withstand heat, and thus carries a daredevil label with it. Moreover, Wang et al. (2016) also suggested that eating spicy food may increase subsequent risk seeking tendencies as well. So don’t eat hot wings before a driver’s exam.
Well, that definitely calls me out. I’m far from an adrenaline junkie: that rush makes me incredibly anxious, instead of inspired and bigger-than-life. According to this profile, it would be normal that something that causes pain would cause an avoidant reaction in me. But, if you’re a bit like me, and still want to grow comfortable eating spice, it seems that trying it out incrementally will help a lot.
I must also add: my process of enjoying heat was also distinguishing the flavors of heat that I enjoyed. For instance, I really love paprika, taste-wise. Because of this, I am willing to suffer a bit more for its flavor. In that sense, my attraction towards that Hungarian paprika is understandable. I feel the same way for chipotle peppers — very tasty. But cayenne? I wouldn’t even eat it mild. So, for those who are hesitant, try milder versions of various peppers to know what flavor profiles you prefer. From there, it might be easier to expose yourself to higher heats. They are not all build the same, and neither are all burns.
Ready to try a spicy soup?
Behavioral measures of risk tasking, sensation seeking and sensitivity to reward may reflect different motivations for spicy food liking and consumption
Nadia K. Byrnes and John E. Hayes
The potential relationship between spicy taste and risk seeking
Xue Wang∗ Liuna Geng† Jiawen Qin∗ Sixie Yao∗
Why do people living in hot climates like their food spicy?
James S. Thorntona
Does anyone still watch mukbangs*? The video trend that exploded during the pandemic? Where people engorged themselves of outrageous amounts of (junk) food on camera, describing every detail of their sensory experience?
I starred mukbang, because I was referring to the Americanization of the originally Korean concept, which simply means “an eating broadcast.” The core intention is quite sweet: lonely people get to virtually eat with others, as togetherness around meals is arguably a beyond culture, human desire.
That said, I did not know the origin story when I first encountered what this word meant two years ago. I only saw ridiculous quantities of greasy fast food, overly enthusiastic assertions of deliciousness, and an abhorrent melting pot of slurping, swallowing chewing, crunching (admittedly… the crunching was pretty nice) and loud moaning.
I was very uncomfortable, and I am not one to feel that emotion often. I prefer to embarrass than to be embarrassed if I have to pick.
But hey, some of you all obviously like it — like I said, I was a bit convinced by the crunching — and by this point, many have theorized why that may be the case. Food is a core desire in Maslow’s hierarchy of need, so watching so much food security is satisfying. The presentation may play another role; food is colorful and aesthetic. And we like pretty things. Watching this can also attenuate cravings — or create some — because it is comforting to imagine what those sensory experiences would be like.
As student of psychology, I realized that I understood the desire to watch it, just not the manner in which it is shown (think about the slurping again).
There’s a pivotal psychology study that painted humans in a meh light — they arguably all do — and concluded that we’re basically sheep. It is commonly called the “Smoke filled room” experiment. Basically, three people are filling out a form on their own in a room, quietly. Two are decoys, one is the actual test subject. The room begins to gently fill with smoke. The test subject is then challenged: they notice the smoke, will they alert their classmates who seem unbothered?
I’ll save you the details: most people will wait an embarrassingly long time before stating that something is wrong, if they ever do. This is because people take cues from other people as to what to do.
But even more so, people take cues from other people as to how to feel. You may have seen that contrary to our hatred of them, laugh tracks actually increases people’s likelihood to laugh at a video, as well as change our understanding of the scene. In a 2015 study by Rhodes & Ellithorpe, 112 participants viewed a clip of reckless driving. Half saw the clip with a laugh track, while the other half did not. Results showed that people were indeed influenced by the laugh track, as it communicated how the viewer should interpret what they were shown.
We mirror what we’re primed to do, or in less psychological terms, we replicate what we believe to be expected/shown to do.
In consuming media of food overindulgence, we are more likely to liken our reactions to that of the host, even if our unbiased reaction would be otherwise. If they are describing how amazing the food is, and making all kinds of affirming noises to support the claim, who are we to disbelieve them? Clearly the food must be good.
Now, as to why some people will not like it… that’s a larger conversation. The above study did mention that identifying with the person that we are watching does have an impact, as well as personal experiences with the action. So, the host and our experiences with the type of food matters. You may like watching the pizza videos, because you also like pizza. But cheese fries gave you indigestion three years ago so you are automatically turned off by it. Some people just have misophonia, which is a heightened sensitivity to specific noises including mouth ones.
However, this is just a hypothesis, based on my knowledge of psychology. It would be interesting to find out if the current emphasis on mouth noises has an affect on our perception of the food. If not, it would definitely redefine the modern cooking show that is always assuring you that the dish you cannot taste is absolutely incredible. Until then, if hearing the destruction of potato chips between teeth or blowing on pea soup scratches the itch, go for it.