The chef explains that fiery food tastes hot because chemical molecules, such as capsaicin, excite pain receptors on your tongue that are linked to the sensation of temperature, not because it’s burning off your tastebuds. “It’s more of a sensation of heat than something physical. Interestingly, spearmint actually hits on the same receptor, creating a sense of cold.”
Are people born with a spice-hating gene?
Chef Phillips says spicy food lovers aren’t born with an affinity for hot sauce. Rather, it’s acquired over time, as capsaicin and other spicy food molecules deplete a neurotransmitter called substance P, which is responsible for sending pain signals to the brain.
This could explain why people from some countries, such as India or Mexico, seem to have a naturally higher tolerance for hot foods -- they’ve been eating them from a very young age. “Children in Mexico actually snack on jalapeno-laced lollipops,” says Chef Phillips. Once people have become desensitized to the heat, they begin to appreciate other qualities of hot pepper and spicy treats just as much. “Some chilies have tropical fruit flavors, while others have tobacco and leather flavors,” he adds. “When you eat chilies, it releases similar endorphins to a runner’s high. You start to miss a meal that doesn’t have that spice.”