Why Is Spicy Food Not Spicy to You?

Are you one of those who enjoy eating spicy food and even get a kick from the fiery feeling associated with most spicy foods? You probably think it’s strange that you enjoy such foods while others around you cringe at the sight and smell of spicy foods. So you wonder why spicy foods are not spicy to you.

Spicy food is not spicy to you because you have a high food heat index which explains your tolerance for spices and food hotness. People with high food heat index have numbness to the capsaicinoids in most peppers due to a depletion of the neurotransmitter, Substance P. The neurotransmitter is responsible for transmitting pain from your mouth receptors to the brain when you eat spicy food.

So, would you instead consider your seeming numbness for spicy food a game of nature or nurture? Or do you think some people have the spice-loving gene or cannot perceive spiciness? We will find out why spicy foods are not spicy to you and whether there is some science to explain it. Keep reading to learn more!    

The Science of Spices and Whether Spiciness Is Genuinely a Valid Taste?

From a scientific standpoint, the human tongue has no taste buds to detect spiciness. Sweet, bitter, sour, and salty are the only taste buds the human tongue is evolved to detect. As a result, we can only deduce that spiciness is not a valid taste but is better described as a kind of flavor. 

For instance, we can neither classify wasabi nor chili into any taste buds since the sensation is not exclusively felt on our tongues. Instead, we classify them as flavors because the sensation is spread across our tongues, lips, nose, throat, and brain.

The chemistry of spiciness is all in the reaction between the spice phytochemicals and our neurotransmitters and receptors, giving rise to the biological interpretation of the spicy sensation and final voluntary or involuntary reaction.

Here is what we mean!

Explained Spice chemistry
Voluntary ResponseInvoluntary Response
Screaming
Fanning
Jumping
Panting
Seeking cold water
Sweating
Hiccups
Hyperventilation
Tears
Nasal mucus secretion
Mouth/Throat/Tongue burn.

Essentially, the spices in spicy foods contain phytochemicals that bind to several receptors in the mouth. The chemical bonding between the phytochemicals and receptors triggers a reaction that your brain interprets as dangerous as in the case of wasabi or hot as in the case of chili.  

Fun Fact: Humans have several mouth receptors(Polymodal Nociceptors), each designed for a specific phytochemical, and two different phytochemicals can bind to one mouth receptor at once. The mouth receptors are not evolved to detect the spice’s taste but to detect danger or heat as part of the body’s defense mechanism

Apparently, cold spices contain menthol as the active ingredient or phytochemical. However, the mouth receptors responsible for detecting cold spices transmit a feeling of coolness which the brain interprets as refreshing.

The degree of spiciness for most spicy food is not the same. Some linger for more extended periods because of a more potent receptor to phytochemical bonding like chili’s capsaicin. On the other hand, some spicy foods are pretty intense, sometimes harsh but fleeting because of a weaker phytochemical to receptor bonding like the isothiocyanate of wasabi. 

In any case, the sure antidote for spiciness is dairy. The milk protein— Casein contained in dairy products binds to the phytochemicals on your mouth receptors and mops them off so that you do not feel the burn as much.       

Fun Fact: Birds can’t sense spices, especially pepper.

Do Some People Just Love the Pain From Spicy Foods?

Endorphins

If spicy foods generate such massive discomfort that the brain interprets as dangerous, toxic, or threatening, why then do people constantly subject themselves to such intense sensations?

Although it seems counterintuitive, there is a fascinating science to it. When you experience pain, your body tries to compensate for the painful feeling by stimulating the release of a feel-good chemical called Endorphins. 

The endorphins, also known as the happy hormone, produce a sense of pleasure or euphoria to counteract the pain, surprisingly causing you to return for more spicy food.  

Fun Fact: People derive a rush of adrenaline from eating spicy foods. It is what drives them to engage in significant pepper eating contests for fun, and the world continues to grow new species of pepper to take the world’s hottest pepper title. 

Can You Train Yourself To Handle Spicy Foods? Or Are Genetics Responsible?

Science has shown through several studies that there is a correlation between environmental factors and the love for spices. Several civilizations developed an adaptation for spices by simply being around them for a long time. However, there is little evidence to show that there is a genetic explanation for it. 

In essence, the possibility of the existence of a spice-loving gene is unlikely, at least for now. People instead develop more tolerance for spices by getting tougher through continuous exposure. Therefore, the more spicy foods you eat, the better you are at handling or tolerating spicier foods. If you want to increase your spice tolerance, you can begin with eating foods with milder spices and work your way up to more intense spicy foods.  

Fun Fact: Most spices and herbs developed pungent and aromatic flavors as an evolutionary adaptation to protect themselves from being eaten and preserve their species. 

FAQs

Is the Tolerance for Spicy Food Among Humans Genetically Acquired?

Generally, the argument for nature vs. nurture creates a double approach to most questions about the human body and its response to stimuli. Genetics can only account for a minimal percentage of people’s abilities to handle the spiciness of the food. The remaining more significant percentage of spicy food tolerance is due to environmental factors where people build tolerance and adaptability to spices over time.

Is the Spiciness of Food a Taste Variant?

Generally, we have just a few taste variants based on the taste buds of the human tongue (sweet, bitter, salty, sour). Even though we feel spiciness in our mouths, it is not essentially a type of taste. Instead, it is a flavor, so we perceive spiciness across other organs like the brain and nose. As a result, spiciness is both a flavor and a sensation. Our perception is based on our response to the reaction between the spice’s phytochemicals and our receptors.

Why Can’t Some People Handle Spicy Food?

Some people can not handle spicy food because they lack sufficient exposure. The reason is that no one is born with a specific tolerance for spices. Spice tolerance is instead built over time from continuous exposure and consumption. Over time, the capsaicin in most spicy foods reduces the neurotransmitter called substance P, responsible for sending pain signals to the brain when you eat pepper.

Final Thoughts

Spicy foods are not spicy to you because you have, over time, built an increased tolerance for spicy food due to sufficient exposure. As a result, your receptors are more adaptable to spices, and your tolerance for pain increases. Therefore your brain no longer interprets the spicy sensation as dangerous, which is why you feel more relaxed.

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Bill Kalkumnerd

I am Bill, I am the Owner of HappySpicyHour, a website devoted to spicy food lovers like me. Ramen and Som-tum (Papaya Salad) are two of my favorite spicy dishes. Spicy food is more than a passion for me - it's my life! For more information about this site Click

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