The Science of Spicy Food

What makes food spicy? We still know very little about it, but science can explain much of this phenomenon and help us to prepare delicious spicy dishes.

We are close to landing on Mars and yet we still know very little about such a mundane thing as hot spicy food. Why is it that when we taste a Habanero sauce, for instance, our palate experiences a tingly burning sensation? What makes food spicy and why does the sensation vary from one person to another? And more to the point, why do we want to go on eating the sauce despite the almost unbearable sensation it provokes? On reflection, these are obvious questions that rarely get answered properly: science, however, can explain much of this phenomenon – telling us what makes food spicy – and help us to prepare delicious hot spicy dishes.

We can start by saying that pungency is a sensorial perception and not really a taste at all. Our tongue, which is actually a muscle, is covered with thousands of “taste papillae”, a type of sensor able to recognize five primary tastes: bitterness, sourness, saltiness, sweetness and umami, integrated by recent studies with “fattiness”. Spiciness does not appear in this list, but we feel it on our tongue just the same because when we eat something hot and spicy, our so-called VR1 pain receptors come into play. Yes, you understood correctly, a genuine form of pain is triggered by capsaicin, the molecule that makes food “hot”: this is the same pain we experience when we put our hand close to fire, with the sole difference that the sensation of pungency is restricted to microscopic areas and does no real harm. Moreover, capsaicin “deceives” our receptors, making them believe there is a temperature of over 43 °C inside the mouth: a kind of innocuous fire alarm that creates a pleasurable sensation on the palate.

Many scientists have asked themselves why people experience pleasure from a burning sensation which, in other parts of the body, would only be interpreted as disagreeable: there is still no precise answer to this question, only theoretical explanations. Some claim that our body is able to perceive the beneficial effects of a dish of hot spicy food (it kills bacteria, regulates the blood pressure and increases salivation) and therefore makes us like it. Others, like Dr. Paul Rozin from the University of Pennsylvania, refers to “benign masochism”. In other words, we experience pleasure from a pungent food because it causes a slight pain. Whatever the explanation, many of us are fond of hot spicy food and it plays an important role in many exotic cuisines such as those of Mexico and Thailand.

On the grounds of what has just been said, are there any ploys we can adopt to make the most of the capsaicin in our food? Of course there are! First of all, this molecule does not mix with water, so pungent sauces and spices should be used in fatty dishes rather than those with a high water content, in order to enhance the sensation of pungency, but above all, to make it to pass more quickly, enabling us to proceed with the next mouthful. Similarly to fats, this same function is performed by sugar which is why chilli pepper works well with dishes rich in carbohydrates, such as pasta and desserts, which enhance the more pungent aromas without being unpleasant. Try adding a pinch of chilli pepper (a tiny amount is quite enough) to lemon and chocolate desserts, especially milk-based ones, and you will note that it gives them a pleasant “kick”. A final hint: if you are fond of pungency, learn how to dose it: a standard sized chilli pepper has a pungency index of 5000 SHU, while that of a Calabrese chilli pepper is 15000. The world record goes to the “Trinidad Scorpion”, with its impressive 1,463,700 SHU: definitely not an experience for all palates!

The Science of Spicy Food

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