I always wondered why some people, like my brother, like really spicy foods. For him, it’s the hotter the better. For me, if I eat food that spicy I no longer taste any particular flavor–I just feel pain. Are people who like really spicy food just masochistic? Why do some people find pleasure in the pain of pungent spices?
As it turns out, this question of why some people have a preference for spicy foods is one that has been posed by scientific researchers many times in the last few decades. And there are several proposed explanations for why my pain may be someone else’s pleasure.
Hypothesis #1—The thrill-seeking personality
In 1980, Rozin and Schiller first put forward the idea that liking of spicy food may be due to some individuals’ adventurous nature. They say it is analogous to liking roller coasters in the way that it provides a “constrained risk.” For example, when you ride on a roller coaster for the first time, and the car begins to descend from the biggest hill your heart beats faster, you may start sweating, you fear for death, and your body’s physiological fight-or-flight mechanisms engage, releasing adrenalin into your system. This gives you a kind of rush. Especially when you realize that there was no real danger and you exit the ride safely. The next time you ride, you may have some of these same feelings, but not to the same extent, because you have the memory that last time you made it through perfectly safe. This is what researchers mean by “constrained risk.” With spicy foods, there is an initial burn that causes its own physiological reaction. The spicy compounds simulate pain receptors, but as you keep eating, your body realizes that it is safe from any real harm and actually is gaining the benefit of nourishment. Granted, the response to spicy foods is not quite the adrenalin rush experience with roller-coasters, but the idea here is that these activities that are seemingly risky at first blush create a certain interest or arousal in some personality types.
More recently, a 2012 study by Ludy and Mattes, re-examined this hypothesis as part of a broader effort at characterizing differences in spicy food use. This study used questionnaires to evaluate personality traits. They expected to find greater extroversion and sensation seeking behaviors, and less finickiness among spicy food users. However, they found no associations between personality traits and spicy food preferences, and found it much more likely that cultural influences and other exposures to be the key. Having said that, these researchers also acknowledge a major limitation of their study is the small sample size. So this may alter how we weight this study.
Hypothesis #2—Cultural influences
The next idea is that cultural practices and personal relationships influence our preferences for spicy food. This seems reasonable. You tend to eat the types of foods typically available in the community where you live. In particular, eating preferences and behaviors are often acquired by observing parental behavior. If your family eats spicy food, you will come to like it too, so this hypothesis goes, based on the positive social interactions that occur during meal times, irrespective of the influence of exposure or genes. However, it is hard to disentangle the cultural influence from mere exposure since individuals raised in cultures who eat a lot of spicy foods are likely to have been introduced to these tastes at an early age and consume spicy foods frequently.
Hypothesis #3—Exposure is everything
How do you explain a total reversal from food aversion upon first exposure to developing a preference for spicy foods? Stevenson and Yeomans (1995), using chili spice in their model, show that liking for the burn can increase with increased exposure alone. Their data show a, “linear decrease in burn intensity” with increased exposure. In other words, the more spicy food you eat, the less your body responds with the painful burning sensation. This attenuated response makes the spicy food more palatable and hence leads to greater enjoyment. While the exact mechanism of this adaptation is unclear, it seems that your body builds up something of a tolerance to the spiciness.
Hypothesis #4—It’s in their genes
We all have receptors on our taste buds that are stimulated by specific chemical compounds in food. There is some variation in the sensitivity of these receptors based on our genetics. For example, you may have heard of “super-tasters.” These are people who have a genetic variation that results in taste receptors with greater sensitivity such that they perceive flavors much more intensely than the rest of us.
To try to quantify the contribution that genetics play in taste perception, Tornwall et al. conducted a classical twin design study in young Finnish adult twins. They used sensory testing to expose the participants to samples of sour, spicy, and varying degrees of pungency. They additionally used questionnaires to determine the perceived pleasantness of these tastes. These researchers found that identical twins had much greater similarities in their responses and liking for certain foods than fraternal twins. This result makes the case for a genetic component to spicy food preference. But just how much impact do genes have? Tornwall et al. found genetic factors to explain 18-58% of the variation in their model. So even though that is a wide range, it is fair to say that genes do make a contribution to this phenomenon. But it’s not the whole story.
Putting it together…
Given these diverse explanations for why some people like it hot, it is hard to choose which to believe. I believe it’s not as simple as one or another of these factors, but rather (like most things, it seems) is likely a complicated web involving these and other environmental, biological, and psychosocial factors.
For now, I’ll stop worrying about why and accept that my brother will always opt for “extra spicy” while I order my dish mild.
Stay tuned for next week’s post on why adding some spice to your life may actually benefit your health!