“It’s not hot enough unless I’m dripping sweat as I eat it,” a friend of mine would tell the server at our favorite Mexican restaurant in college, as he ordered the secret, off-menu hot sauces for his burrito. Both in awe and disgust, I’d watch him pour threatening levels of neon orange and green sauces on his food, as I relished the buzzy head rush from the standard medium-level red salsa.
As someone whose spicy food tolerance maxes out at sriracha -- admittedly a tame fire compared to the ghost pepper sauces my friend savors -- I wondered what’s responsible for our vastly different tastes. Basically, why do certain people flat-out obsess over spicy food? And what about, at the opposite end of the spectrum, people who can’t handle any heat at all?
The heat may be all in your head
Eating peppers feels physically painful for people who shun spicy food. But Chef Bill Phillips, a spicy foods expert and associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America, says the suffering is all in their heads. “Although you feel like it’s burning [when you eat spicy foods], it’s actually a trick of the mind,” he says, adding that spicy foods do not cause any physical harm to a well-functioning digestive system.
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.”