The Science of Spicy Food

by Buck Reed

The definition of spicy we will be working with in this article will be “Food flavors provoking a burning sensation caused by chilies or other spicy foods or ingredients” or hot foods. First of all, if you do not appreciate spicy, hot foods, it is not a sign of weakness and it is not linked to ethnicity. If you were born in India and ate vindaloo and curries all your life, then you are probably very used to spicy foods. No one is really born with a propensity or tolerance for spicy food. So, if you are not used to them, there is hope you can learn to appreciate them if you start eating them more frequently.

Can spicy, hot foods destroy your palate or taste buds? That would be a hard “no.” Even a lifetime of eating spicy foods has no effect on your ability to taste and appreciate other foods; however, it can have other effects on your body, such as acid reflux, stomach aches, indigestion, and heartburn. Limiting your exposure to these spicy foods or taking over-the-counter medications to help combat these side effects might help you in your exploration of these foods.

Most American palates can relate to and appreciate the spicy flavors found in peppers. A peppers’ spiciness/heat is measured in Scoville Units, which was invented by a chemist named Wilbur Scoville. This scale measures the actual amount of capsaicin (active component of chili peppers) in each pepper and directly relates that to other peppers. A bell pepper has no capsaicin, so it clocks in at 0 SHU (Scoville Heat Units), and a Jalapeno has a measurement of 2500 to 8000 SHUs. The hottest pepper on record is the Carolina Reaper at 2.2 million SHUs. If you want to substitute one pepper for another but keep it at the same heat level, use a little math to adjust the amount of pepper you put into your dish.

The hotness in horseradish is caused by isothiocyanate, a compound that reacts to oxygen in the air or saliva. Most people feel that heat in their sinuses.

Mustard is spicy because of a compound called sinigrin. The spiciness of mustard comes from the enzymes that are formed when mustard oil mixes with liquid.

Not too long ago, you may remember the Cinnamon Challenge, where idiots would film themselves trying to swallow a spoonful of this seemingly comforting spice. If you ever watched it, you know not to do that unless of course you are, in fact, an idiot. Cinnamon has a compound called cinnamaldehyde. This compound has been known to cause skin irritation.

Relief for most of these compounds is simple. Capsaicin is soluble by milk and dairy products; so, when eating them, use these products to dilute them. On the other hand, isothiocyanate is water soluble and can be relieved by water. And, of course, all spicy food reactions can be alleviated by drinking beer. I have no scientific data for this claim, but I do have a lot of experience with it.

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