A pleasure to burn: Why do people like spicy foods?

  • 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 idiosyncrasies. 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 Tantalus-like 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 monkeys?

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. (Photo: 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.

But 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: 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…

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