Spicy food vs. people who can't handle it

A heat-seeking personality type may exist.

My friend would tell the server at our favourite Mexican restaurant in college, as he ordered the off-menu secret hot sauces for his burrito, "It's not hot enough unless I'm dripping sweat while eating it." Watching him pour threatening levels of neon orange and green sauces on his food, I would relish the buzz from the standard medium-level red salsa.

Since my spicy food tolerance reaches sriracha -- admittedly a tamer fire than my friend's ghost pepper sauces -- I wondered what accounts for our vastly different tastes. What makes some people so obsessed with spicy food? And what about those who cannot handle any heat at all?

Perhaps the heat is all in your head

It is physically painful for people who dislike spicy food to eat peppers. Pepper lovers argue that the pain comes from their minds. The feeling of burning [when eating spicy foods] is actually a trick of the mind, he says, adding that spicy foods do not harm a well-functioning digestive system.

The chef explains that fiery food tastes hot because chemical molecules, such as capsaicin, excite pain receptors on your tongue associated with temperature, not because it burns off your taste buds. "It's more a sensation of warmth than anything physical. Interestingly, spearmint stimulates the same receptor, causing a feeling of cold."

Do people have a spice-hating gene?

It is not a natural talent to appreciate hot sauce, says chef Phillips. It is caused by the depletion of a neurotransmitter called substance P through the consumption of capsaicin and other spicy foods.

People from some countries, such as India and Mexico, may have a higher tolerance for hot foods because they've been eating them from a young age. Mexico's children eat lollipops with jalapenos in them, says Chef Phillips. Once people have become accustomed to the heat, they start appreciating other aspects of hot peppers and spicy foods as well. "Some chillies taste like tropical fruits, while others taste like tobacco or leather," he explains. Chillies release endorphins similar to what runners experience. When you don't eat spicy food, you miss it."

There may be individuals who are looking for heat

People with a preference for peppery foods often exhibit certain personality traits. According to a study from the 1980s that demonstrated a connection between roller coaster enjoyment and passion for spice, researchers found that people with sensation-seeking personalities (also known as thrill seekers) are more likely to enjoy spicy food. It is more likely that people who love jumping out of planes, going on adventurous trips, and trying extreme sports will increase the Scoville count of their meals than those who prefer less risky activities. 

In fact, thrill-seeking fails to capture the complexity of attraction to heat; men and women may grab the Texas Pete for completely different reasons. Women who apply hot sauce to their foods do it to spice things up, whereas men do it to be noticed. Phillips confirms that there's an element of thrill to it. "It won't be easy, but as with a roller coaster, you know you'll be fine at the end."

There is a way to train your tongue

Many people on the Internet are addicted to spice, and they're transforming tastes in this country. As a country, we're eating more spicy foods. Look at Doritos. They keep upping the spice level with capsaicin," explains chef Phillips. Besides breeding chilies, people are also creating hot sauces with increasing amounts of capsaicin extract."

What about the less vocal group, which is only comfortable with pepper and peppercorn? Chef Phillips advises his students to build up their tolerance by starting out "low and slow." He recommends starting out with milder peppers, such as banana peppers or poblanos. If those flavours start to burn less, try a little more quantity and then moving to hotter options, like jalapeno, serrano, or tabasco. Regular exposure will gradually increase your tolerance. While you may never become a spice-head who craves Trinidad moruga scorpion peppers, you'll be able to eat a bowl of curry without having to drink gallons of water.


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