When it comes to food, there are two types of people in this world: those who eat to live and those who live to eat. I, unapologetically, belong to the second group. I am a foodie through and through! If I hadn’t become a scientist, I would have become a chef or a baker. Whenever I’m having a bad day, food has the ability to cheer me up. When I’m having a great day, food is how I celebrate. My favorite foods have generally included anything that is fried, but recently I’ve acquired a craving for all things spicy, especially peppers.
A few years ago, I swore up and down that spicy food was not for me!
“I would have to be insane to want to eat something so spicy it brings me to tears,”
I would tell my now hubby, who has always had an affinity for spicy foods. Inevitably, he got me to try a spicy dish that he ordered and my life changed. I’m not going to lie, that first taste was rough. My mouth and lips were on fire!!!? I probably downed a whole glass of cold water to get any kind of relief from the burn. However, with each new bite of spicy food I started to get used to the sensation and almost even craved it. Soon I was eating entire dishes of spicy food on my own and slowly but surely I started seeking out things that were hotter and hotter. You could almost say I’ve developed an “addiction” to spicy food, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Although you can come to crave spicy foods, your body will not develop a dependence on them like you would to truly addicting molecules like caffeine or nicotine. However, there is some very real chemistry and neuroscience involved in that craving for spicy food.
So let’s talk some food science! That painful burning associated with the consumption of a chili pepper comes from compounds known as capsaicinoids, the most well-known of which is capsaicin.
Fun Fact: Capsaicinoids are derived from the compound vanillin, which gives vanilla its delicious taste and smell.
Surprisingly, their “hotness” or “spiciness” is not a taste but rather a sensation. There are no taste buds associated with capsaicinoids.
When they reach the tongue, capsaicinoids interact with a special type of protein located on the surface of nerve cells. This protein, called TRPV1, acts a sensor for the cell giving it information about the outside world. Normally, TRPV1 gets turned on by physical heat, like a fire, above 109˚F (43˚C). This signal will turn the nerve cell on to allow it to trigger other nerve cells that will carry the message to the brain that it has to respond to this dangerous temperature (think of it as your neurons playing telephone). When capsaicinoids interact with TRPV1 they also turn the protein on and cause the same signal to be transmitted to the brain into thinking it is being burned even though there is no real heat present.
Note: TRPV1 is actually present on nerve cells in many locations on the body so this burning sensation can be experienced elsewhere, which is why you should always wash your hands after dealing with chili peppers, especially before touching your eyes!
Now that we know why peppers are hot, you might be asking yourself, “Why exactly would anyone seek out this burning sensation?”
The answer to this question can be found in the way our brains are wired. Capsaicinoids trick the brain into thinking it is being burned, which is a painful experience, through the transmission of neurotransmitters. Remember, earlier when I said your neurons play telephone. Well, when your body senses pain somewhere like the tongue that message has to make it to the brain. The message is sent from the location it is initially generated to the brain through a network of neurons by talking to each other via neurotransmitters, which are essentially chemical messages. One such message produced by capsaicinoids is substance P, which transmits pain signals. The brain responds by releasing another type of neurotransmitter known as endorphins. Endorphins are the body’s natural way of relieving pain by blocking the nerve’s ability to transmit pain signals. Additionally, the neurotransmitter dopamine, responsible for a sense of reward and pleasure, is also released.
In essence, for some people eating large amounts of spicy food triggers a sense of euphoria similar to a “runner’s high”. So next time you need a little pick-me-up consider giving into the power of the chili pepper and discover why chiliphiles have come to love the burn!