A study on all things spicy
Living in the South, I’m never far from spicy food. From hot chicken, to blackened fish, to jambalaya, our region cooks with a zest all its own. In 2015 when Southeastern Mills acquired Louisiana Brand Hot Sauce, I was given the opportunity to delve into “heat” in a way I hadn’t done before. And one of my pet projects has been to learn more about the science of chili peppers – especially as it relates to why certain people love spicy food.
My education on the topic of “why some like it hot” transported me into a fascinating story that touches on psychology, physiology, and world cultures. It’s useful knowledge to have when considering flavor profiles, and I’m excited to share what I’ve learned with you.
HOW SPICY FOOD SET SAIL
Today we consider black pepper only a mild jolt on the heat scale, but hundreds of years ago it was the main way to bring spiciness to a dish, and it was highly in demand. Black pepper originated in southern India, and for centuries it was the key spice sought by European explorers. In grade school you probably learned that in 1492 Christopher Columbus “discovered America,” but did you know he also “discovered the chili pepper”?
Chili peppers were a staple in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, where they grew in abundance, but those lands were largely isolated in 1492. Columbus “discovered” chili peppers when he sailed into the Caribbean. He brought them back from his travels as a substitute for black pepper – which is the spice he was looking for but didn’t find.
The taste initially received a lukewarm welcome in Europe; however, in the following decades, as more sea explorers ventured to the areas Columbus charted, the chili pepper fanned out into the world, most notably taking root in African, Indian, and Asian cuisine.
Chili peppers are indigenous to Mexico and Central America, but today they are cultivated all over the world. The US grows a large quantity of chili peppers in New Mexico, California, Arizona, and Texas; however, it seems these local producers can’t keep up with the demand here in the states, and the US is currently the top importer of chili peppers in the world.
TURN UP THE HEAT
So, what causes a dish to taste spicy? There is more than one ingredient that can turn up the heat, but the heat level is dependent on the underlying compound that causes that particular spice to be hot.
One of the most common forms of pepper is the generic black pepper which comes from the peppercorn. Peppercorns are the fruit from a flowering vine in the Piperaceae pepper family. Black pepper heat levels are often lower because its pungency comes from a chemical known as piperine, which isn't as intense. Another heat source is allyl isothiocyanate, which is the oil that gives mustard, radishes, horseradish, and wasabi a kick. Uniquely, the sensation that is caused by allyl isothiocyanate is an aromatic, which means that it triggers the nose instead of the mouth. However, what most people consider "real heat" is the active substance called capsaicin, which can be found in chili peppers.
Within the rank of chili peppers, there is a wide range of heat levels, as classified by Scoville Heat Units (SHU) which is the scientific method used to record capsaicin concentration. To give you an idea of how wide-ranging the chili pepper heat scale is, here are a few examples:
Anything above about a 1,000 SHU will likely give you some level of “burn.” And whatever your heat preference, or should I say endurance level, we all encounter a similar reaction to capsaicin.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU EAT A CHILI PEPPER
You bite into a chili pepper
The fiery heat is actually concentrated in the inner white pith of the chile pepper. Once you bite into a pepper the capsaicin, which is a chemical compound, starts to hit your taste buds.
Your mouth "burns" due to the capsaicin
The capsaicin in chili peppers is totally tasteless. Instead of flavor, what the compound brings is a “burning” sensation to the chili pepper experience. Capsaicin triggers the nerves in the tongue and mouth that are tied to “heat” – yes, the same kind of heat that physically burns. And while eating a chili pepper doesn’t change your body’s temperature, it creates symptoms of extreme heat.
Substance P transmits pain signals
The burn you experience is not related to taste; it is actually associated with the body’s pain system and the message sent out by the neurotransmitter “Substance P.” Substance P signals bad pain and stimulates inflammation.
You experience a combination of physical reactions
This may include your forehead and face sweating, your eyes tearing up, and your nose running. These excretions are your body’s way to expel the threat and cool itself down.
Endorphins are released and causes a euphoric feeling
Endorphins are the body’s natural way of relieving pain by blocking the nerve’s ability to transmit pain signals. For some people, eating large amounts of spicy food triggers a sense of euphoria similar to a “runner’s high” and the sensation may become addictive
But again, we go back to the question of why do we put ourselves through this? Why set our mouths aflame to simply eat a meal? There seems to be no single definitive answer to that question, but instead many answers that together encapsulate the complicated nature of human beings – and how we seek to satisfy ourselves through what we eat. Understanding these complexities and consumer motivations can help all of us in the industry make more informed menu and flavor decisions.
THRILL SEEKERS RAISE YOUR HANDS
Several studies have documented that people who are thrill seekers are more likely to consume spicy foods. It seems that those with a daring nature see chili pepper consumption as a harmless way to get an adrenaline rush while taking only a very limited risk of some minor discomfort.
In addition to the fact that people who are thrill seekers are more likely to consume spicy foods, it seems that spicy food enthusiasts are also “sensation seekers.” This means that they like and crave the way spicy food lights-up their mouths. In one study, it was discovered that these sensation seekers didn’t seem to be as susceptible to heat levels, meaning they didn’t rate heat levels as intense.
Also tied to this premise is the theory that the sensation is habit-forming. When the capsaicin hits the nerves in our mouth, our body releases endorphins (a mild natural opiate) to comfort the burning sensation. The more chili peppers you eat, the more you will want them – as there seems to be some type of addictiveness surrounding the experience, maybe caused by the endorphins and adrenaline rush. Therefore, the three primary reasons why some people prefer spicy food are for the thrill, for the sensation, and for the addictive endorphins.
Everything mentioned above is mostly tied to personality and preferences, however, one key answer for why people enjoy spicy food is also the most obvious explanation – upbringing and environment. In other words, many people eat what their family ate, and that is usually based on where they live and their heritage.
But merely chalking up spicy food to tradition still doesn’t answer “why” people in those areas or descendants of that culture eat that way. Why is food all over the world so different with regard to the use of spices? Here’s what I propose – heat causes heat. Cuisines which we think of as being spicy include Indian, Mexican, Thai, Chinese, and Ethiopian. In addition to high heat level dishes, another thing these areas have in common is a high-temperature climate.
SPICY FOODS IN HOT CLIMATES
A 1999 study and subsequent article entitled “Darwinian Gastronomy: Why We Use Spices” by Paul W. Sherman and Jennifer Billing discusses, in part, why spices are more common in some cuisines over others. They documented patterns of spice use by analyzing 4,578 traditional meat recipes from 36 countries.
Black pepper was seen in 63% of the recipes worldwide and was second to onion (65%) as the most frequently-used spice. Chilis were also commonly used in 24% of the recipes. After documenting the spices, the annual temperature of each country, and analyzing all the data, their conclusion was that tropical countries have spicier dishes for reasons not as a simple idiosyncrasy, but based on a historical need that these spices fulfilled – to protect the eater from foodborne illness and food poisoning.
The dishes analyzed were traditional recipes and concocted before refrigeration was common. Hot climates like South America where chili peppers grow natively had food spoil quicker than cooler areas. In these warmer areas, cooks learned that in addition to enhancing the flavor of food, many spices had antimicrobial properties that helped kill toxins.
There’s a whole spectrum of data that supports their premise, but I’ll share two examples to illustrate the point. India, which has an average temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit, uses the most spices, which is approximately 9 per recipe. Poland, where the average temperature is only 46 degrees, uses the least amount of spices of less than one per dish.
The researchers concluded that it’s not a random coincidence the traditional dishes in balmy areas tend to be “hot” while the traditional dishes from colder areas are considered blander. Sherman and Billing found that as the average temperature increased, so did the frequency of use of chili peppers, garlic, and onion – all spices with high antimicrobial properties that can help kill bacteria on food and in the body.
In 2015, a massive spicy food study of 485,000 people in China found that those who regularly had spicy food, mainly chili peppers, reduced overall risk for death. Then in 2017, this conclusion was corroborated by a public health study that included data on 16,179 adults in America. The antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties of capsaicin may help regular chili pepper eaters prevent diseases.
GETTING PAST THE HEAT
As mentioned before, Substance P is a neurotransmitter that sends pain signals to the brain which then responds by releasing endorphins. This is what happens to your body when you eat a chili pepper. However, it has been discovered that capsaicin depletes substance P in two ways.
First, as you consume a dish that contains chili peppers, capsaicin depletes the substance P as you continue to eat, so your brain gets fewer warnings about the pain. As a result, from the start of the dish to the end of the dish, the food doesn’t seem as spicy..
As a chemical messenger, substance P also generally wanes over time in the systems of habitual chili pepper eaters. People who eat a lot of chili peppers find the experience less painful than casual eaters because their nerve endings don’t know something uncomfortable is occurring. This means that people who eat a lot of spicy food are probably better able to appreciate the other flavors of the dish since they aren’t being bombarded with spiciness.
Tip For a
If you ever get served a dish that's too spicy, do not drink water. Doing so will distribute the capsaicin around your mouth, spreading the pain. Turn instead to milk, ice cream, chocolate, sugar, or a slice of bread. These foods are more likely to soak up and counteract the capsaicin to bring relief.
Of course, you’re always going to have consumers who want it hot, hot, hot; but, there’s a whole spectrum of people out there who will appreciate something beyond pure heat. In particular, sweet tastes and sour tastes accentuate spicy flavors.
Louisiana Brand Hot Sauce has been considering chili pepper flavor combinations since 1927. The Original recipe uses only three ingredients – chili peppers, vinegar, and salt. Chili peppers bring the heat. Vinegar brings an acid / sour balance. Salt brings the brine that’s needed to draw out all the great flavors in the pepper past just “heat.” In our latest expansion of this family of brands, we introduced a Sweet Heat with Honey Louisiana Brand Hot Sauce variety which offers a special blend of chili peppers highlighted by a touch of sweetness. This is in addition to the dozen-plus other hot sauce taste options the brand has developed. So, you can count on Southeastern Mills (and this Cajun chef) to continue to explore chili peppers through our Louisiana Hot Sauce Brand and other offerings.
HOT OR NOT?
This is an enormous topic, and what I’ve shared here is just a few areas of research on the subject of spicy food preferences and palettes. Ultimately, the answer to why some like it hot seems to be – we aren’t entirely sure. Yes, we have some good research that begins to unlock answers, but it appears that a combination of factors come into play. And while your heritage, environment, and personality aren’t absolute indicators, they help develop a person’s spicy food preference.
For those of you who don’t like to eat spicy food, and who have read this far, thank you for sticking with me to the end – I haven’t forgotten about you. I have a few friends who are not on the spicy food bandwagon. I often entertain at my home, so when I cook for a spectrum of palettes, I usually turn to spices with a more tolerable zest – flavors like ginger, cumin, red pepper flakes, and the mild version of Louisiana Brand Hot Sauce. So, if you aren’t a spicy food fan, but would like to try some mild heat, I recommend starting with those flavors to add low heat to dishes. And, of course, there’s always the ubiquitous shaker of black pepper, which is the spice that started this journey back in 1492.