Why Do Humans Like Spicy Food?
Like a lot of Things We People do, it has to do With Our Brains
by Nuchee Vang, age 12
do we eat spicy things like chilies that make us feel the need to drink
lots of water? Shouldn’t we avoid these foods? Yet many people are
still drawn to the taste of chilies.
Some experts argue that
people like chilies because they are good for them. Chilies can help
lower blood pressure, prevent disease, and increase salivation. The pain
of chilies can kill other pain, an idea based on recent research.
Others experts, like Dr. Paul Rozin, argue that beneficial
effects are too small to explain the great love of chili-spiced food. “I
don’t think that they have anything to do with why people eat and like
it,” he said. Dr. Rozin studies other human emotional likes and
dislikes. He thinks we’re in it for the pain. “This is a theory,” he
emphasizes. “I don’t know if that this is true.”
has proof for what he calls “benign masochism,” or friendly pain. For
example, he tested chili eaters by increasing the pain, right up to the
point when the test subjects said they couldn’t take it anymore.
But why does spicy food taste “hot?” To answer this question, we need to investigate the experience of taste.
turns out that capsaicin, the active ingredient in spicy food-binds to a
special class of receptors inside our mouth called VR1 receptors. After
capsaicin binds to these receptors, the sensory neuron and it sends a
signal indicating the presence of spicy stimuli.
strange part: VR1 receptors weren’t made to detect capsaicin. The real
purpose of VR1 is thermorception, or the detection of heat. This means
that they are supposed to stop us from eating food that will burn our
sensitive flesh. As a result, when the receptors are activated by
capsaicin, the sensation we experience is strongly linked to feeling
There is nothing “hot” about spicy food. It is
only VR1 receptors that make us think that spicy food is “hot.” Hmm,
sounds like food for thought.