Some people are heatseekers. They see that little chili pepper symbol next to a menu item and order it immediately. They’re the ones with an entire pantry shelf dedicated to hot sauces featuring semi-disgusting, rectum-related, punny names. They are the ones who watch an episode of Hot Ones and look down on all the celebs that can’t handle The Last Dab. They are the spice-lovers. And I am one of them. But what does it mean to love spicy food? What exactly is spininess? Is spicy a flavor? Or is spicy a feeling? We’re about to dive into some flavor science, but watch out because things might get a little spicy!
Is spicy a flavor?
Over time, humans developed the ability to detect five basic flavor qualities: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. Recognizing salt helped us maintain the sodium levels required to maintain a balance of electrolytes; sweet helped us crave sugar for quick burning energy; umami led us to protein-rich foods. So, is spiciness a flavor? Nope! Spicy is not one of the five basic flavors that humans taste.
Is spicy a flavor or a feeling?
Spiciness is not a flavor—it’s a feeling. I know, I know. You may be thinking, “Of course spiciness is a flavor! I love the taste of spicy things!” First of all, calm down. Don’t get so worked up over an article. Second of all, you don’t taste spice, you feel it. While peppers all have their own distinct flavors that you can taste—such as the citrusy sour punch of a habanero or the grassy twang of jalapeño—that spicy tingle that numbs your tongue and makes you sweat is not processed the same way that your body recognizes taste. Receptors in our taste buds send signals through neurotransmitters to our brains that tell us what flavors we are tasting. Spicy, on the other hand, is interpreted by our trigeminal nerve, a part of our nervous system. This nerve sends feelings of touch, pain, and temperature from our face to our brain. So when spice hits our tongues, our bodies are reacting to that sensation rather than tasting a flavor. It’s our body’s way of warning us that something might be trying to hurt us. That thing in spicy food that our body tries to protect us from is called capsaicin.
What is capsaicin?
Capsaicin isn’t trying to kill us; it’s not like a toxin or acid. It most likely developed in plants as a way to protect them from being eaten. Most animals would probably take one bite of a capsaicin-laced pepper and run off thinking it’s poison. But some people tried it and thought, hey, that’s pretty good. When your body detects that spicy “threat” it releases endorphins and adrenaline to help you flee the danger. Those can both feel pretty good and create a spicy “high.”
Capsaicin is also the reason we can feel spice even if we don’t eat it. You may have chopped up some jalapeños in your kitchen and felt your fingers burning. That’s the capsaicin. Oh, by the way, if that happens to you make sure you wash your hands before going to the bathroom. That’s a bad burn. In fact, the scoville scale, the scale that we use to measure spice level, was actually invented not to measure spice when eating peppers but for applying spice in ointments to the body. The numbing sensation of spice has been and still is used as a painkiller.
Hopefully all of this really helps you to appreciate spice on a whole new level. I show this appreciation by purchasing crap like Heinous Anus hot sauce.