The Psychology & Health Benefits of Spicy Food
Sex, genetics, and culture are all reasons why some like it hot
As a university student, I spent a semester abroad in Kyoto. Our instructor once posed a series of questions to the class: How do students in your country de-stress? How do they celebrate after end-of-year exams? Whatever she asked, invariably my Korean classmates replied with, “We go out and eat spicy food”. And so I wonder, is spice the panacea for all that ails us? But first…
What puts the pep in peppers?
The answer is capsaicinoids— more than twenty such compounds, the most common of which being capsaicin, found in hot peppers and possessing a plethora of beneficial properties. (More on that later.)
Developed in 1912 by pharmacist Wilbur Scoville, the Scoville scale is used to rank chili peppers by hotness, from the humble bell pepper (under 100 Scoville heat units) to the hellfire of the unholy matrimony of ghost pepper and habanero, the aptly named Carolina Reaper (up to 2.2 million SHU).
Recently, the Carolina Reaper has been dethroned by the new record holder: the Dragon’s Breath chili coming in at 2.5 million SHU. However, this pepper has been grown for medicinal uses (as a skin anaesthetic) rather than for consumption. For comparison, pepper spray is five million SHU while pure capsaicin is sixteen million SHU.
The Scoville scale corresponds to roughly how many times a substance needs to be diluted until its heat is no longer detectable. For jalapeño extract (5,000 SHU) this is about 5,000 times, with each milligram of capsaicin per kilogram of chili pepper equivalent to approximately 15 Scoville units.
Putting out fires
If you find you can’t handle the heat, a cold glass of milk will provide you with some much-needed relief as it contains casein, a protein which helps break down capsaicin.
What affects our perception of spiciness?
It’s not all about the capsaicin content. Fortunately for hot sauce manufacturers and Mexican restaurants everywhere, there are various psychological factors that can be leveraged to give spicy food that extra kick.
Mental processes are cross-modal, a blending of the senses which reflect the complexities of the external world, wherein objects and experiences are the unification (and interaction) of their look, sound, feel and smell. Due to the cross-modal nature of perception, mismatched visuals can alter what we hear, physical warmth translates into social warmth, and when it comes to spiciness, sound and colour matter.
We associate the colour red with heat, therefore regardless of the fact that ripe chilies also come in yellow, orange, and brown varieties, the redder the salsa, the spicier people expect, and even perceive, it to be. Similarly, a spicy dish served on a red rather than white plate has been shown to taste 20% hotter by comparison.
Spicy music also enhances perceived piquancy. What’s spicy music, you ask? According to Wang and colleagues (2017) who conducted the study, a spicy soundtrack is one high in pitch, tempo, and distortion.
Why do we enjoy spicy foods?
Capsaicin binds to a temperature receptor on nerve fibres known as TRPV1, giving rise to that familiar burning sensation. So then why on earth are some of us so peckish for pungent peppers? Is it masochism? Thrill-seeking? Perhaps, it may even be machismo…
It turns out, genetics, culture and personality all have a hand in determining why some like it hot. And as for the spice junkies among us — they’re apparently aroused by pictures of foods containing chili peppers, showing increased brain activity according to an fMRI study.
Genetic differences account for 18–58% of variation in preference for spicy food, with individuals more sensitive to the pungency of spicy food finding it less pleasant.
Although consumption of chili is increasing worldwide, some cultures have more of a culinary predilection for spicy foods than others. In the case of spicy food, repeated exposure leads not to desensitisation, but to an ‘affective shift’. Simply put, the more spicy food you eat, the more likely you’ll be to relish that familiar, burning sensation.
Lovers of spicy food have been shown to exhibit higher levels of aggression. However, this may be due to another underlying, associated factor: sensation-seeking.
Those who frequently partake in spicy food consumption are more sensitive to reward, and more likely to seek out novel sensations. (Such as feeling as though they’ve swallowed hot coals after ingesting a ghost pepper.)
It’ll put hairs on your chest
In cultures where spicy meals are less of a staple, for example the United States as compared with Mexico, handling one’s hot sauce has become tied to masculinity. Which is fitting, as a preference for spicy food is predicted by levels of salivary testosterone.
Male and female lovers of spice differ. Among men, enjoyment of spicy food is more strongly correlated with sensitivity to reward, while sensation-seeking is the bigger driver in women, reflecting a possible gender difference in extrinsic (external) versus intrinsic (internal) motivation.
Hot chilies and mild masochism
All other mammals rightly avoid ingesting chilies — but not humans. Biting into a hot chili pepper produces a burning sensation in the oral cavity, resulting in a modicum of pain. The upside of pain is that it ‘improves the experience of events that follow pain’s offset’. In other words, relief from pain is a sort of pleasure onto itself.
Consuming foods that irritate is an example of benign masochism; luxuriating in muscle soreness after a strenuous workout is another.
The benefits of spicy foods
Regular spicy food consumption is associated with reduced all-cause mortality among both men and women after adjusting for other risk factors. It also reduces the risk of mortality from cancer, ischemic heart diseases, and respiratory diseases.
The protective effects of regular spicy food consumption are stronger for fresh as opposed to dried chili peppers, as the former is richer in nutrients and bioactive ingredients such as capsaicin, apigenin, vitamins A, C, K, and B6, and potassium. In particular, hot chilies contain:
Capsaicin, which has demonstrated anti-cancer activity, and possesses antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties. Further, capsaicin may facilitate weight management through decreased appetite and enhanced satiety, and by aiding in fat oxidation through thermogenesis. Simply put, increased body temperature speeds up the conversion of fat into fuel, helping you to burn more calories.
Apigenin, a type of flavonoid found in red peppers, shows promise in treating schizophrenia, depression, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases by stimulating the formation of synapses in neurons (i.e. enhancing brain connectivity).
The risks of spicy foods
Acute chili ingestion can aggravate abdominal pain in gastrointestinal disorders such as dyspepsia (indigestion) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Additionally, there is an association between consumption of spicy food and developing IBS, particularly in women.
Interestingly enough, chronic ingestion of reasonable amounts of capsaicin may actually improve symptoms related to indigestion and gastroesophageal reflux disease.
Beware also, of eating spicy food before bedtime, as the thermogenic properties of capsaicin could leave you tossing and turning in bed as it elevates body temperature during the first sleep cycle.
While regular intake of chili peppers is beneficial to health, don’t overdo it. And please, stop recording your tearful, sweaty, and semi-delirious selves swallowing ghost pepper and uploading it to YouTube — your bowels and I thank you.
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