Why Are We Enjoying Spicier Food?
We devote a lot of time thinking about food, thinking about ways to season and prepare food, researching how food is consumed around the world and searching emerging trends in food.
Some countries or regions are known for having super spicy cuisines - Ethiopia, Korea, the Sichuan Province and Thailand regularly top the list of the world’s spiciest cuisines. America, over the last 25 years or so, has seen a significant increase in people enjoying spicier foods. Salsa has become our favorite condiment (replacing ketchup in the late 90’s), chipotle chiles have become a rising star (in the mid 2000s), and more recently Sriracha has taken the country by storm. To add even more fuel to the fire, the per capita consumption of chile peppers in the United States has more than doubled since 1980 (to almost 7 pounds per person each year).
In more recent years, it seems like our love of hot and spicy in this country has gone up several notches from coast to coast. The reason is probably tied into two driving forces – Millennials and Hispanics. Millennials have grown up on salsa, spicy chicken and Taco Bell. They are more accustomed to heat and have more adventurous taste buds. Latinos, meanwhile, have accounted for more than half (54%) of the total U.S. population growth from 2000 to 2014.
Most studies that are done about our behaviors and attitudes toward food are centered more on how much we eat (given our rapidly rising obesity rates), and not on what we eat or why we eat it. But, there are a few studies that have given us a peek at our eating changes, In a 2013 Technomic survey, 54% of American consumers said they preferred spicy foods and sauces, up from 46% in 2009. According to Mintel data, 62% of Millennials (and 56% of US adults) considered themselves adventurous eaters, and a survey conducted by HortTechnology in 2012 found that 33% of the U.S. respondents loved spicy foods and 41% enjoy some spicy foods.
So What Exactly Is Spicy?Now, what is spicy to one person may be very mild to someone else, but from a scientific perspective, a food is considered spicy if it contains a chemesthetic irritant. Chemesthetic sensations are triggered by chemical compounds that activate receptors that register pain, touch, and thermal perception. These chemical induced reactions are not part of the traditional sense categories of taste and smell, and these "irritants" are often from capsaicin (pronounced "cap say shun"), an active component of all chile peppers. Food scientists refer to the irritants causing these sensations as pungency, and measure the associated heat level using Scoville heat units (SHU).
The Role of GeneticsWhy are some of us able to better tolerate spicy flavors? Is your threshold for tolerating hot spicy food something you’re born with or is it something that you can develop?
While scientists generally agree that genetics play some part, there isn't a great deal of research into exactly why some people can tolerate more heat than others. In researching the role that genetics plays in spice tolerance, I have continuously come across this limited scientific study where the respondents were young adult Finnish twins (21-25 years old), including 47 complete identical, 93 fraternal (non-identical) twin pairs and 51 twin individuals without their co-twin. Strawberry jelly spiked with capsaicin was compared to an untainted strawberry jelly and the pleasantness of this jelly and the oral pungency caused by spices were rated based on food descriptions in the questionnaire. Respondents were categorized as non-likers, medium-likers and likers by their respective responses to the spiked capsaicin jelly. The non-likers reported that the oral pungency of the spiked jelly was more intense and rated the spicy jelly as less pleasant when compared to the likers of the spiced jelly. Genetic factors accounted for 18-58% of the variation in the pleasantness of oral pungency, spicy foods and pungent sensations. All pleasantness traits (sensory and questionnaire based) were shown to share a common genetic variance. This indicates that an underlying genetic aptitude to like oral pungency and spicy foods exists at least to some degree.
Other scientists have hypothesized that some people are born with pain receptors that are less sensitive to capsaicin's sting, although no definitive research exists on this subject as of yet.
The Thrill SeekersWhat people like about spicy chiles is the exact thing that people don't like the first time they try them. Those that really like spicy foods even come to crave the burn. What leads to this attitude change? How does mouth pain become associated with pleasure? This behavioral change occurs in the brain and not in the mouth.
Food Scientists have theorized that this is tied to the masochism theory. Masochism is the tendency to derive pleasure and enjoyment from what appears painful or scary. It's what explains why some people love roller coasters, skydiving, free climb and crazy hot sauce and chile peppers. Humans are unlike other animals, where while our bodies warn us of a potential danger, our brains tell us that we're really alright. And when nothing bad really happens the mind feels a sense of pleasure that overrides the body and we start to seek out the experience again.
“Chili-heads like the burn more, not just perceive it less," explained researcher Dr. John Hayes, Ph.D. and Associate Professor of Food Science at Penn State University, in a 2012 Popular Science article.
Dr. Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania has tested chile eater heat thresholds by gradually increasing the spicy pungency of food right up to the point where the test subjects said they couldn't go any further. What he calls "just below the level of unbearable pain".
But just because those that crave heat tend to like thrills doesn’t mean that all roller coaster fanatics enjoy the burn of chile peppers. This is not a symbiotic relationship.
Building Up a ToleranceSome have speculated that those that like heat have eaten enough hot food to kill their taste buds. This isn't really accurate, as taste bud cells are continuously turning over even into adulthood, with an average lifespan of a taste bud lasting approximately 10 days.
There are two ways that one comes to have a high heat tolerance. The first is being born in a part of the world where the majority of the population enjoys spicy foods. Children in these areas are not born craving these fiery cuisines, but the fieldwork of Dr. Rozin, in Oaxaca, Mexico concluded that the act of eating chile peppers and hot sauces creates an acquired taste in the young. Young kids are essentially trained by their families to get used to the burn in small doses.
When kids see their older siblings, parents, grandparents and cousins all eating hot food they do not consider this to be anything but normal. They may start out with very small amounts, but will soon be eating it in larger and larger doses.
One of our bankers, who is from Korea, also shared with me that this is how she grew up as well. She told the story of eating whole jalapeno chiles dipped in a thick hot sauce as being one of her favorite snacks growing up because this was what she saw her mother and her grandmother doing.
If you didn’t grow up in a spicy house you can still train yourself to like the heat, but you have to start slow and build your way up. Start by eating a small about of hot spicy foods (as hot as you can tolerate) 2 or 3 times a week, then work your way up to 4 or 5 and then 5 or 6. This routine starts to re-set your internal heat thermometer. What starts out as “very hot” slowly becomes just “hot”. You can also work on this by rotating even hotter meals, chiles or sauces with slightly less intense ones, and then as time goes on having more of the hotter versions and less of the milder versions.
Soon you’ll find yourself in search of hotter and hotter flavors. It might even feel like you’re developing an addiction to heat. But what you’re experiencing is not the same type of chemical dependency that one would get with alcohol, caffeine or nicotine.
Various Types of Heat Make the Body React DifferentlyHeat seekers know that not all spicy food sensations are the same. The heat you get from Wasabi or Horseradish is different than the heat of a Scotch Bonnet Chile or a Carolina Reaper Chile. Wasabi and Horseradish are both from the family Brassicaceae and are related to mustard seeds, which both have hot and pungent chemicals known as isothiocyanates (pronounced iso·thio·cy·a·nate). Your tongue has a different reaction to these chemicals. It’s spicy, but without a significant burn. The sensation is more in your sinus and nasal passages, and what little burning sensation there is will be felt more on the roof of your mouth.
The painful burning you’re experiencing when you eat chile peppers comes from capsaicinoids. Capsaicinoids are the class of compounds found in members of the capsicum family (all chile peppers come from this family). The most common capsaicinoid is capsaicin. Capsaicinoids have no flavor or odor, but act directly on the pain receptors in the mouth and throat.
When you eat a chile pepper, the capsaicinoids interact with a protein that is on the surface of the nerve cells of the tongue. This protein is called TRPV1 and is also known as the capsaicin receptor. The function of TRPV1 is detection and regulation of body temperature. In addition, TRPV1, when activated, provides a sensation of scalding heat and pain.
So why do people crave this type of burning sensation? The answer to this question can be found in the way our brains are wired. Capsaicinoids trick the brain into thinking that the mouth is being burned, which is a painful experience, through the transmission of neurotransmitters. A message is sent from your tongue to the brain through a network of neurons via neurotransmitters, which are essentially chemical messages. One such message in known as substance P (essentially the pain message). Once the brain receives this pain message it releases several types of neurotransmitters - one is endorphins and the other is dopamine.
Endorphins are how our bodies block our nervous system’s ability to transmit pain signals, while dopamine is responsible for the feeling of reward and pleasure. So eating hotter and spicier chiles sets off an exhilaration similar to a “runner’s high”.
So is it really any wonder why more and more of us are craving hotter and spicier foods?
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