Whether you love or hate spicy food, there is no doubt that it has a unique effect on our taste buds. However, this may come across as a bitter taste for some people. Why is this?
Spicy food tastes bitter if the ingredients used have a naturally bitter taste, such as mustard or turmeric. Some people are also more sensitive to tastes and perceive spicy food as bitter. These people are known as ‘supertasters’ and make up around one in four of the total population.
So, let’s talk about how we perceive spice and how some people taste spiciness as bitterness. I’ll tell you about spice sensitivity and supertasters to better understand the human palate’s interaction with spice.
1. The Food Itself May Be Bitter
The five flavors inherent to all foods are:
- Umami or savory
Our taste buds have receptors that detect the chemicals that cause certain flavor types. The ability to detect bitter-tasting food is vital as, according to Healthline, humans have evolved this to detect poisonous foods. The number of receptors on our tongue impacts how sensitive we are to tastes and sensations, and as we will see below, this can also affect how we sense spicy flavors.
Capsaicin, the compound that makes foods spicy, is odorless and flavorless. It produces a burning sensation on our tongues, but it doesn’t fall into flavor categories. So, the spice can only get flavors from other foods.
A 2003 study on bitterness and capsaicin found that most participants associated spicy foods with bitterness. In the study, researchers applied pure capsaicin to the participants’ tongues, first on the tip of the tongue and then on the tongue’s back. When the spicy capsaicin was applied to the back of the tongue, people found that other foods tasted more bitter.
Researchers hypothesized that this change occurred due to the overstimulation of the many taste receptors on the participants’ tongues. So, spiciness may taste bitter because spice might affect how you taste other foods.
Likewise, if you use other bitter ingredients, such as mustard, turmeric, or ginger, your food will taste bitter whether it has capsaicin in it or not. Since these ingredients are common in spicy dishes, perhaps the bitterness comes from the food itself, not the capsaicin.
In other cases, burnt or toasted peppers, spices, and herbs may produce a bitter flavor.
2. You May Be Sensitive To Flavors
The sensation of spiciness is not a flavor, as highlighted above, but rather a phenomenon caused by chemicals that cause the feeling of burning. Some people have more taste buds on their tongues, which causes them to be more sensitive to spiciness and bitterness.
People with this level of sensitivity are known as ‘supertasters,’ and Dr. Linda M. Bartoshuk, who researches the sensation of food, has reported that around one in four people falls under this category. However, this is on a scale, and some who are not supertasters will still have more sensitive tongues than others.
Taste sensitivity is caused by a particular gene that affects people from birth. Women are more likely than men to be considered supertasters. Another one in four can be regarded as non-tasters, with the largest group consisting of average tasters.
What Causes the Sensation of Spice
Bitter taste is linked to the chemicals active in spicy foods. The strongest of these is capsaicin, which is present in chili peppers.
Capsaicin works by touching and altering the receptors in your tongue that process touch and heat, which are the same receptors that detect burning. It changes these receptors to lower the temperature that these receptors send signals to the brain, which produces a burning sensation, causing the heat that people feel when eating spicy food.
Research has shown that around half of people report at least some bitter taste from contact with capsaicin. The sensation of bitterness from this and other irritants in the mouth is one method of finding out who has a more sensitive tongue than others.
Supertasters and Spice
Supertasters are more likely to avoid strong bitter flavors, which indicate poisonous foods. According to LiveScience, this could be an evolutionary measure to protect people from dangerous new foods and would have been very useful to early humans thousands of years ago.
Since around half of the people in studies have responded to spicy chemicals with a bitter taste, even if you are not in the supertaster category, you may still feel discomfort from spice.
How To Find Out if You Are a Supertaster
You may already know if you are very sensitive to spice and food, but you can check if this makes you a supertaster using food coloring. You can count the number of highlighted taste buds with a magnifying glass by swabbing your tongue with blue food coloring and then swallowing.
Any more than thirty in a hole the size of one from a hole punch, and you will qualify as a supertaster.
How To Make Spicy Foods Taste Less Bitter
If eating spicy food makes your tongue bitter, the best way to combat this is to mix it with other flavors. Even if you are sensitive to spicy and bitter flavors, you will also be more reactive to sweet and savory flavors.
According to The Institute of Culinary Education, bitterness sits in opposition to the savory or umami flavor. Therefore the best way to reduce any bitter taste is to use ingredients such as soy sauce, fish sauce, or cooked meats to mitigate its impact. Provided the level of savory flavor increases to match the bitterness in the dish, this will balance out the overall taste.
People experience taste differently, and if you associate bitter tastes with spice, you may have a sensitive palate that tastes spicy foods more than most people. In addition, overstimulation from capsaicin may make other foods taste more bitter.
Although you cannot stop this reaction, you can use your knowledge of flavors to combat it. Savory or umami ingredients balance out any bitter flavors. Knowing how to mix flavors effectively means that even if you cannot avoid spicy food, you can still figure out how to enjoy it as part of a varied meal.
- Healthline: What to Know About your Sense of Taste
- CBC: What makes a supertaster and how to know if you are one
- PBS: Nova – From jumping horses to jalapeños: the science of spicy peppers
- National Library of Medicine: Two decades of supertasting: where do we stand?
- LiveScience: Life’s Extremes: Supertaster vs. Nontaster
- Institute of Culinary Education: Why Your Food Needs Bitterness
- Researchgate: Capsaicin as a probe of the relationship between bitter taste and chemesthesis.