Spicy food is one of the most polarizing flavors in the culinary world. On one side, you have the “chile-heads” who adore the intense, fiery heat of dishes like Sichuan Hot Pot or vindaloo. On the other side, you have those who find the mere thought of food with a Scoville rating over 1000 intolerable. But why do some of us enjoy the burn and tingle of a spicy dish, while others can’t stand it?
The answer lies in the science of how we experience the flavor of spicy foods. Spicy dishes contain compounds called capsaicinoids, which are what give peppers their heat. When capsaicinoid molecules come into contact with our mouth and tongue, they create a chemical reaction that triggers a response from our body’s pain receptors. This causes the mouth to feel a burning sensation that can range from mild to intense.
But why do some people love the sensation while others hate it? It turns out that our bodies produce a specific kind of protein called the TRPV1 receptor, which is responsible for detecting and responding to pain. Interestingly, some people have a gene mutation that makes them more sensitive to capsaicinoids. This means that they experience a much more intense burning sensation than those without the mutation. For these individuals, even the slightest hint of spice can be too much to bear.
At the same time, there are those who find the sensation of spicy food to be intensely pleasurable. This is because the TRPV1 receptor is closely related to another protein, known as the TRPA1 receptor. This protein is responsible for sensing and responding to sharp or bitter tastes. Researchers have found that when the TRPV1 receptor is activated by capsaicinoids, it triggers the release of endorphins, the chemical responsible for producing feelings of pleasure.
For these individuals, the burning sensation of spicy food is a source of pleasure rather than pain. The intensity of the sensation can also activate the body’s “fight or flight” response, causing a surge of adrenaline, heart rate acceleration, and other changes associated with excitement.
So why do some people love the burn of spicy food while others can’t stand it? The answer lies in our biology. Those with a gene mutation that makes them more sensitive to capsaicinoids will experience a much more intense burning sensation than others. On the other hand, those without the mutation may find the sensation to be intensely pleasurable due to the release of endorphins. Whatever the case, the science behind why we love to hate spicy food is clear.