Why do we love spicy food?

You may have noticed that human beings develop a predilection (almost addiction) for spicy food. Many cultures around the world enjoy eating spicy. Indians, Koreans, Japanese, Mexicans and Peruvians are some of the peoples where spiciness is necessary for the palate. Of course, expelling these kinds of foods isn’t as pleasurable as eating them, but spicy food lovers apparently have no regrets.

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Bottled hot sauces

That’s why many of us keep asking ourselves: why do so many people enjoy eating spicy, despite the ordeal it can represent for the stomach and other parts of the body (wink, wink)? Believe it or not, we love spicy food because it produces a drug-like sensation in the brain.

It sounds crazy, but in this post you will learn about several factors that make spicy foods so addictive.

How does spicy spicy?

Unlike the acidity of lemon or the sweetness of sugar, the heat of spiciness is not a taste, it’s a sensation. In fact, our taste buds aren’t even equipped to detect hot spices, but they are very effective at perceiving burning sensations.

This burning sensation produced by spicy foods is due to the presence of compounds called “capsaicinoids“. Of all, the most well-known is capsaicin, the active component of all hot chili peppers.

Chili peppers of different types
Fun fact: In general, birds are not sensitive to capsaicin and usually feed on chili peppers without any problems.

Once capsaicinoids come into contact with our tongue, they interact with a protein called TRPV1, located on the surface of nerve cells. It is an essential protein that is activated through physical and chemical stimuli, exogenous and endogenous, functioning as a kind of thermometer in our cells. For example, they are activated when they detect temperatures above 43°C and immediately report back to the brain. In this way, the body responds and adapts to temperature variation.

When spicy food activates TRPV1 proteins, it makes the brain believe that the body is experiencing intense heat. In fact, the release of sweat after eating very spicy food is part of the mechanisms that our brain uses to try to “cool down”.

And, although it may not seem like it, capsaicinoids are derived from the same compound that gives vanilla its peculiar taste and smell. On top of that, capsaicin doesn’t tend to dissolve in pure water, so drinking the liquid isn’t enough to lessen the burning sensation. The quickest and most efficient relief is found in milk, a compound that has fats capable of dissolving capsaicin quickly.

So why do we love spicy food?

Although spicy food is not capable of producing an “addiction”, as nicotine or caffeine would, the neurological effects promoted by capsaicin cause some people to have the need to ingest it constantly, falling into temptation most of the time.

Salsa with nachos
Nothing compares to a good salsa accompanied by nachos.

The pleasurable part of ingesting spicy food is precisely due to that sensation of intense heat that is wrongly evaluated. To relieve the “intense pain” that the body supposedly experiences, our brain secretes neurotransmitters called endorphins, substances famous for the “natural analgesic effect” they produce. In practice, endorphins block the nerves’ ability to transmit pain signals to the brain, which ends up decreasing the feeling of suffering.

At the same time, the brain secretes dopamine, another neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of reward and pleasure. As you can see, this neurotransmitter rush generates a state of euphoria and “spicy food addiction.” It’s a vicious cycle in which the spicier the food, the greater the pain, but as the compulsion to lessen this pain will also be more intense, the greater the feeling of induced euphoria.

In conclusion.

Interestingly, hot peppers implement capsaicinoids as a defense mechanism. That “burning sensation” they produce causes mammals and certain fungi to avoid eating them. As we mentioned earlier, birds are indifferent to this substance and when ingested, the seeds pass through the digestive tract of birds without being processed.

Chili Meme

For the survival of the species, this is an extraordinarily brilliant and very well executed detail, as birds usually excrete the seeds whole. This helps the plant germinate in other distant sites, turning birds into pollinators and sustaining the continuation of several species of chili peppers on our planet.

Some pain balms, especially those that burn on contact with the skin, contain capsaicin. As the TRPV1 protein is often present in various places in our body, the same burning sensation we experience in the mouth can be felt elsewhere.

Some areas are extremely sensitive, so there is a risk of considerable damage. A good habit after eating spicy food is to wash your hands very well before touching your eyes to remove tears. Your eye health thanks you.