Food is like artwork and it comes in many different shapes, sizes, and flavors. No doubt you know about the age-old spicy vs. non-spicy food debate. You might like to go for the spiciest sauce available with your food or you might not be able to cope with any spiciness at all. How come some of us can handle the heat and others can’t? An interesting question which we love to explore further with you. In this article, we will explore several aspects around one of the basic flavors that humans can taste.
What is it exactly that makes food spicy?
There are so many different options of ‘spice’ after all. You might think that the spiciness in food comes from chili peppers, funnily enough, this isn’t the case. The culprit is Capsaicin (pronounced cap-say-a-sin), an organic compound produced by the seeds in plants of the genus Capsicum, this is the active ingredient that gives spicy food its fiery heat. Every day is a school day isn’t it, here we learned something new about spices.
Does this then determine the level of spiciness in our food? Not quite. Not surprisingly our tongue is the most important body part when it comes to taste and plays a key role in determining whether or not we find food spicy. You might know that we have five tastes determined by our tongue which are bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and umami. On top of that your tongue also contains thousands of pain receptors (VR1 receptors), these are capsaicin’s prime target.
How does that work then? Well, when the capsaicin molecules in your food come into contact with each other they bind to the pain receptors on your tongue. What happens next is that burning sensation, which is really signaled by the brain, which is identical to what happens when you get your hand too close to a hot fire: it burns. More about the history of spicy food.
Why do some people love spicy food but others can't?
Now, let’s have a look at that burning question we all have. How come that some people love spicy food and can eat it and others can’t? Let us demystify a myth first. Myth: being able to eat spicy foods is decided in our genes. Wrong!
Apparently, it’s all in our heads… yes, really. Don’t take our word for it though. Chef Bill Philips who is a spicy food expert and associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America, says it too. He says that “Although you feel like it’s burning [when you eat spicy foods], it’s actually a trick of the mind,”, adding that spicy foods do not cause any physical harm to a well-functioning digestive system.
Hands up if you have heard people say it’s genetically determined whether or not you can eat spicy food. Yes, we heard it too. But let’s debunk that myth quickly too. Although it seems that certain cultures are more ‘heat resistant’ than others this has nothing to do with their forefathers. There is a very simple explanation for the fact that people from some cultures, for example, Mexico and India, can handle spicy food a lot better than most Westerners. The simple explanation is that they have been eating spicy food from a young age onwards so they are used to it. Sorry, no exciting science facts to share with you there.
Although, apparently people with sensation-seeking personalities are more likely to enjoy spicy food. Another fun fact, most men tend to eat spicy food for attention whilst most women eat spicy food for the thrill it gives them.
Just because you can’t handle any spiciness at the moment doesn’t mean you never will. Like with many things in life you can actually train yourself to be able to eat spicy food. You can build up your tolerance for spicy food by starting with a very low level of spiciness and slowly build this up. It takes time but you’ll get there!
The connection between spicy food and cultural differences?
Let’s look a bit more about that cultural difference when it comes to spicy food. We established it isn’t genetically determined but people in certain cultures eat spicy food from a young age onwards. There is a very interesting history behind this. We won’t bore you with it too much in this blog here, but let’s look at some key points.
Spices actually originated in Mexico and spread throughout the world during the era of transatlantic trading. It first went to South America and really gained ground in Asia and Africa. During this time, long long ago, spices actually served another function besides adding taste to your food. It has been said that spices may have been added to dishes long before the invention of refrigerators to make food last longer. This makes sense because the countries with higher temperatures annually use more spices in their food. Contrary to that countries with lower temperatures often have, quite frankly, more plain, bland food.
We know what you’re thinking, yes Europe was very big in the transatlantic trading scene so why are they not using spices? You’re right, they were. Especially when transatlantic trading started in the 17th-century spices were something exclusive to the upper class and rich people. However, when this food trend changed and spices became widely available to all layers of society the rich decided they no longer wanted all these exotic spices in their food and they preferred ‘plain’ food.
We’ll end with debunking one more myth. You often hear people say that people in warmer climates eat spicy foods to help people sweat to cool off the body. This is not true. As you just read it all started with food preservation.
Next question for us : Can we train ourselves to eat spicy food? And is it worth it?