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What makes food so spicy?


Some people love it and some people hate it, but there’s no arguing spicy food is more popular than ever. But what exactly makes food so spicy, and why do some people go so crazy about it? Read on to find the answers those questions, and more!

What makes spicy food so spicy?

A bowl full of red chili peppers/
The chili pepper (as seen above) originated in Mexico and is commonly used to add spiciness to dishes. 

Chili peppers are well known as a main ingredient in most spicy dishes, but what makes them so hot? It turns out that chili peppers contain a chemical called capsaicin (say “cap-SAY-sin). Capsaicin attaches itself to certain receptors in your mouth that normally tell you how hot food is. Their job is to stop you from eating or drinking something that could burn your insides. Capsaicin, no matter its actual temperature, triggers these receptors and floods your brain with the sensation of heat. The rest of your body then reacts, often making you break out sweating!

Why are some foods hotter than others?

Scoville scale that rates the heat of a pepper.

The Scoville Scale measures the spiciness of a pepper. Photo by juliedeshaies/123RF Stock Photo

Different peppers contain different amounts of capsaicin. The Scoville Scale was invented to tell people how spicy various foods are. The higher it is on the Scoville rating, the spicier it is. For example, a jalapeno pepper, which is a very popular ingredient in many dishes, usually has a rating of 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville heat units. This is usually considered not too spicy, but not too bland. The habanero pepper, by comparison, has a rating of between 100,000 to 350,000 SHU. It’s considered very spicy by most people.

So, some foods might be spicier because they contain hotter peppers. Or, they might contain milder peppers, but they might contain a LOT of them.

Do you find this interesting? Read All about your taste buds!

Why can some people eat spicy food with no problem, while others can’t?

Person clenches a fresh chili pepper between their teeth.

Science isn’t quite sure why some people can eats tons of spicy food, while others can’t handle a single drop of hot sauce on their dinner. Some studies point to a link between personality traits and enjoying spicy food. For example, some evidence suggests that people who are thrill seekers also enjoy the burn of spicy food!

One thing that is known is that a tolerance to spice can be learned over time. In countries like Mexico that are known for their spicy cuisine, kids are usually exposed early and often to hotter meals. As a result, they become used to spicy food and can tolerate hotter and hotter foods as they age.

Help! I ate something way too spicy! How do I make the heat stop?!

Glass of milk, half full.
Milk, yogurt or sugar can help sooth the heat in your mouth caused by spicy foods.

Oh no! There are a few things you can do to cancel out the overly spicy curry you just wolfed down. The best cure for a fire in your mouth? A glass of milk. Dairy in general can help, so yogurt or cream are other options. Another helpful heat quencher? Sugar! So it turns out there is a problem that a hot fudge ice cream sundae is the perfect solution for!