A survey conducted by TUMS has found that 43% of Americans enjoy eating spicy food. However, the results also revealed that some spice lovers avoided the heat because it made them unwell. When spicy is too spicy, how do you know if you can handle your spice?
The severity of your body’s reaction toward peppery foods will determine how spicy you can handle. You can start with milder peppers and work towards hotter ones to find out your spice limit. However, your spice tolerance level can be increased by gradually training your intake.
Below, I will take you through the mechanics of spicy food and how your body reacts to the chemical found in peppers. I will also explain how to figure out your spice limit and how you can increase your tolerance if you want to handle hotter peppers.
How Much Spice Can the Human Body Handle?
Knowing what your body goes through when you eat something spicy will help you better manage your expectations. You will be more attentive and know when it becomes too hot to handle.
The level of spice a human body can tolerate varies from person to person. Spice tolerance is evaluated based on how adversely your body reacts when you ingest capsaicin, the chemical compound found in peppers.
Know What Goes Into Spicy Food
Capsaicinoids, containing the chemical compound capsaicin, are responsible for the spiciness in foods.
Capsaicin amounts vary from chili to chili. The more capsaicin you consume, the spicier the food will be for your taste buds.
The Scoville scale measures the capsaicin levels in peppers in terms of the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU). To date, the world’s hottest pepper is the Carolina Reaper, coming in at over two million SHUs, while bell peppers have the lowest spicy level at zero SHU.
What Happens When You Eat Spicy Food?
When you eat spicy food containing capsaicin, your mouth experiences a burning sensation that signals what you just ate is pepper-hot. If your bare hands touch pepper juice, you will experience the same burning feeling.
But does this chemical harm your tongue or skin?
Capsaicin will not cause your tongue or skin to peel or burn off, but it does stimulate the pain receptors on your cells. What you feel is the sensation of heat rather than a physical irritation.
As the heat from the peppers affects you, your nervous system is duped into believing that your body needs to cool down. If you eat something spicier than you can handle, you may experience the following tell-tale signs:
- A runny nose. The lining of the respiratory system produces extra mucus to protect your lungs from capsaicin, the “intruder.”
- Perspiration. The burn causes your body temperature to increase, and your body produces sweat to diffuse the heat.
- Hiccups. Hiccups seem to be an uncommon side effect. When your lungs react to capsaicin, your may start hiccuping as your diaphragm attempts to help expel the unwanted substance.
If you experience the above symptoms excessively, you’ve probably overloaded your body with too much peppery food. It is good practice to know when to stop eating spicy food because it can result in tissue inflammation as your body can’t cope with the extra heat.
Why Some People Can Handle Spicier Food Than Others
Just like how peppers have varying SHU levels, you may notice that some people can ingest spicier food better than others. Generally, this is because everyone has different degrees of sensitivity and amount of receptors in their mouth.
Cultural heritage can also influence one’s ability to eat spicy food. In some countries, young children are exposed to spicy food to desensitize their taste buds. For example, research has found that Mexican parents gave their children packets of sugar combined with red chili powder to strengthen their spice tolerance.
Interestingly, some research suggests spicy food affinity is linked to psychological effects. Some people opt for the spiciest option because they relish the burn that comes with it. However, it isn’t the burn per se that is addictive but the endorphins released by the brain when the pain receptors are engaged, creating the feeling of being “intoxicated.”
Figure Out Your Spicy Food Tolerance
Your initial tolerance towards peppers is judged by how your body reacts to the intensity of the spice. The good news is this limit can be gradually increased if you wish, but it is best to know where you stand before plunging into the deep end.
How To Test Your Spice Tolerance
Determining your spice tolerance at first is simple: start small.
Now that you know what capsaicin is, you can try out different peppers to figure out which ones you can stomach without tearing up. Look up the Scoville scale as a reference — note down the species of pepper you have tried and see where it ranks on the list.
If you’re a newcomer to the world of spice, you can introduce a different kind of heat into your diet before starting on peppery delicacies. The wasabi plant is a good alternative.
Wasabi has the compound allyl isothiocyanate, which is heat-inducing too but dissipates much quicker than capsaicin. This way, you experience the burn minus the intensity from capsaicin, which can help you decide if spicy food is for you.
Building Your Spicy Food Tolerance
It is possible to train your body to up your spicy food intake with enough patience. Here are some tips to guide you:
1. Start Mild and Work Your Way Up
Starting small will let you gauge where your training should begin. Once you’re comfortable with milder peppers, it will be safe to increase the heat. Your taste buds will gradually get acclimatized to the spiciness.
It is also a good idea to start slow. According to Professor Mary-Jon Ludy, eat spicy foods in small quantities if you’re not a regular eater, or you risk overwhelming your mouth with too much capsaicin at once.
2. Have Extinguishers on Hand
When experimenting with spicy, keep a cooling substance on hand to fight the heat if it gets too much. Dairy products like milk are a good choice because they contain casein, which can bind to capsaicin molecules and wash them away.
On the other hand, water doesn’t help as capsaicin is an oil-based compound that won’t dissolve in water.
3. Know When To Stop
You can only handle as much spicy as your body can. If you start feeling uncomfortable from the heat, it is a sign that you should stop. You have to prioritize your health before taking it further with spicy food.
Not everyone can stomach potent peppers, and that’s normal. Don’t force yourself if you are in pain.
The level of spicy you can handle comes down to how well your body reacts to ingested capsaicin. You have a low spice tolerance if you experience:
- A runny nose
You can increase your spicy food threshold by:
- Starting mild and working upwards.
- Having cooling substances close by.
- Knowing when it is too spicy for you.
You can safely and responsibly savor the heat if you recognize when something is too spicy for you. Spice tolerance is not finite — you can choose to push your taste buds to the limit, but doing so requires practice and patience.
- McGill University Office for Science and Society: Why some people tolerate spicy foods better than others
- PepperScale: The Hottest Peppers In The World (Updated for 2022)
- PepperScale: Too Hot? Building Your Spicy Food Tolerance
- Pfizer: Bodily Functions Explained: Spicy Food Reaction
- Pennsylvania State University Science in Our World: What Causes People to Have Different Spicy Food Tolerances?
- The New York Times: Can’t Take the Heat? A Taste for Spicy Foods Can Be Learned
- YouTube: 43% of Americans Like to Spice Up Their Lives by Dabbling in Zesty Fo