Fact Or Fiction: Is Spicy A Flavor?

| Last Updated: November 9, 2020 |

What we call taste is a collection of different senses that includes smell, mouthfeel, and temperature. There are five basic tastes and everything we perceive as flavor is a combination of those tastes. We detect tastes via papillae on the tongue most of which are equipped with taste buds. So, fact or fiction: Is spicy a flavor?

Fiction. Many would claim spicy is a flavor, but technically, it sits outside what’s considered the five basic tastes and it operates completely differently on the tongue.

If spicy isn’t a flavor, then what is it?

The heat from chili peppers is actually pain caused by the compound called capsaicin. There are several chemicals in hot peppers that give it flavor but the heat produced by capsaicin is classified differently.

Receptors on the tongue can detect temperature and pain along with tastes from food. Capsaicin binds to these receptors and acts as an irritant that causes the sensation of heat. It is mimicking the sensation of something very hot against the tongue and that causes pain because of its high temperature.

Another way to look at it: Capsaicin mimics the sensation of heat in much the same way that menthol mimics the sensation of coolness. The capsaicin in chili peppers is similar to the irritant in poison ivy, which is why you can sometimes detect the heat from chili peppers through the skin on various parts of the body besides the tongue. It’s also why capsaicin cream is often used to stop itching – the light burning sensation effectively blocks the itching sensation.

What are piquancy and pungency? Don’t they make spicy a flavor?

These terms both are used often when describing the flavor of food, but in actuality they aren’t flavors.

The term “pungency” is what researchers use for the hot sensation that comes from eating foods like chili peppers. Excessively pungent foods are often considered difficult to eat.

Piquancy is used to describe a lower level of pungency but with detectable and agreeable flavors. Mustard is an example of a piquant spice.

What are the five basic tastes?

Taste is the sensation you get when something has a chemical reaction with the taste buds in your mouth. Compounds in foods get dissolved in saliva and come into contact with taste buds.

The 10,000 taste buds that humans possess enable us to taste five basic flavors. Contrary to popular misconception, the taste buds for each taste don’t occupy specific zones on the tongue. Rather, they are distributed all over the tongue. The five tastes are:

Savory

This is the umami flavor, which is often described as brothiness or meatiness. It is usually produced by glutamic acid or aspartic acid. Glutamic and aspartic acids are amino acids produced by proteins that you find in various foods including tomatoes and meat. You can also find it in vegetables like asparagus.

Sweet

The flavor that we call sweet usually comes from sugar and related compounds. Other compounds that we perceive as being sweet include certain amino acids and alcohols from fruit and fruit juices. Sweet is often a sign of foods that are rich in nutrients.

Salty

In most cases, food containing sodium chloride is what tastes salty to us but other mineral salts like potassium and magnesium salts also have tastes that may be perceived as salty. The salt flavor is detected by the presence of sodium ions. Like sweetness, salty food is often an indication of nutrient-richness.

Sour

The sour taste comes from acids and acidic solutions. Common naturally acidic foods include fruits like lemons and cranberries.

Bitter

Bitterness can come from a vast range of different chemical compounds but is often associated with alkaloids. Some biologists believe that the dislike for bitter foods helps humans to avoid poisoning.

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