The love of spicy food is a controversial subject for people who take flavor seriously. Few things can divide foodies more than spicy condiments like hot sauce and dishes like Nashville hot chicken. In recent years, the spicy foods have been growing in popularity with the growth of hot condiments like sriracha and ingredients like chipotle peppers. So why do people like spicy food so much? Let’s look at some factors.
The adrenaline rush
One of the prevailing theories about the popularity of hot peppers is that they trigger a defense response. Your body detects pain when you eat them and reacts to that pain as if it is in trouble, which causes it to release adrenaline. The adrenaline produces a state of excitement that many of us find pleasurable. Basically, eating chili peppers gives us a similar sensation as skydiving and bungee jumping.
A safe food signal
Some researchers believe that the taste for spicy peppers comes from centuries of using them to preserve foods and defeat food-borne illnesses. Capsaicin is the compound that makes chili peppers hot. It has antimicrobial effects along with its spicy kick. Scientists theorize that heat signals to our brain that food is safe to eat, making the food more desirable.
Evidence that seems to support this includes the fact that spicy foods are more common in hot countries where rapid spoilage is more of an issue. Also, spices like chili pepper get used in meat dishes more than in vegetable ones. The reason for this may be that meat dishes are more likely to spoil quickly.
Your mom ate spicy food
Some research suggests that our enjoyment of spice might start before birth. The foods a mother eats while pregnant can determine what her baby will like. The flavors we experience as children will also guide our preferences later in life. If you grew up in a home where spicy foods were eaten all the time, you are more likely to enjoy them in adulthood.
Americans now have greater access to foods from all over the world than ever before. People are now able to eat foods from Thailand and India among other places even in parts of the U.S. where spicy food is not a part of the traditional diet. The same goes for Europe, where Indian and even Mexican restaurants can now be found in major cities. The new generation of foodies is far more willing to experiment with truly exotic flavors than were previous generations.
Deliberate tolerance building
Spicy heat is a taste you acquire like the flavors black coffee and whiskey. You can literally train yourself to tolerate hot pepper by eating it regularly. Do this by starting out with a mild pepper like banana pepper and gradually working your way up to a hot one like a habanero. Some people do this because they see the enjoyment of spicy food as a sign of toughness while others just want to add a new dimension to their food.
Some people are supertasters, others…not so much
The tolerance for heat can vary dramatically. Some reasons for that might be physiological. Various factors ranging from the papillae on your tongue to genetic factors can influence how you taste your food. One person might detect flavor notes that another person cannot or detect more of them than others. The response to peppery heat is like the response to cilantro in that some people find it deeply unpleasant while others truly enjoy it.