The Psychology Behind Spicy Foods and Why People Love Them

The Psychology Behind Spicy Foods and Why People Love Them

Ever had a friend who can only enjoy their food if it makes them sweat buckets? A friend who indulges in ghost peppers, while you can’t seem to tolerate anything more than jalapeños? The differences in one’s heat tolerance aren’t dependent on one’s pain tolerance. Read on if you wish to know the psychology behind spicy foods and why people love them.

Peppers Play with Your Head

Interestingly enough, when you eat a pepper, the pain and heat you feel in your tongue and mouth are completely in your head. The spice of peppers and similar foods causes no actual damage to your mouth or digestive tract; rather, spicy foods contain chemicals—such as capsaicin—that excite pain receptors in your tongue and relate to perceiving sensations of temperature. This sensation of burning tricks your brain so well that your body believes it needs to start sweating in order to cool down.

In nature, peppers and similar spicy foods are theorized to have developed these chemicals to discourage mammals from eating them by making it too painful—which makes it ironic that many cultures today enjoy these foods as delicacies or staple ingredients. However, this also seems counterproductive to how fruit-producing plants spread their seeds. Turns out, a mammal’s potent stomach acids can break down the seeds of peppers too much, reducing their fecundity. Instead, pepper plants depend on birds to spread their seeds because the seeds will pass through their digestive tracts without any issue. In return, birds don’t feel the effects of the capsaicin, so they can eat the peppers without issue.

Why People Might Hate Spices

Now that we know more about the natural chemicals within spices that purposely cause us pain, it seems more than obvious why someone would hate spicy foods—besides the fact that they may just not enjoy the taste of spicy food, period. But then, how do spices become so commonplace in countries such as Mexico or India? Well, a neurotransmitter called substance P is responsible for sending pain signals to your brain. But as you continue to eat spicy foods, the capsaicin and similar substances deplete the amount of substance P in your body. So, in a way, humans are born with a natural aversion to spices, but they can come to tolerate and become more immune to the heat over time. This allows us to experience and enjoy the other flavorful properties of spices that would otherwise be buried under the pain.

This would explain why people in countries such as Mexico seem to have a much greater tolerance for spices—these spices are such staples there that people begin eating them at a young age, depleting the substance P neurotransmitter earlier.

Why People Might Love Spices

Understanding that pain and heat are a spice’s natural defenses against animals, what causes some people to become absolute spice fiends? The psychology behind spicy foods and why people love them may have to do with certain personality traits. In a study from the 1980s, researchers found that many people who actively seek out greater challenges concerning spices and heat are the same types of people who enjoy activities that give them an adrenaline rush: thrill-seekers, to be succinct. Because the heat and pain you experience from spices cause no actual physical damage, there’s a certain thrill to be had in testing your limits and seeing how many Scovilles you can take.

Many people who enjoy spices also tend to cite how they feel physically afterward. The irritation of the spices causes the dilator naris muscle within the nose to dilate, making it much easier to breathe and potentially clearing up inflammation within the nose’s airways. The adrenaline and thrill that the spices cause can also help you feel more energized and awake.

Training Your Tongue

Spices only continue to grow in popularity. In the United States, trends are turning towards spice, as evidenced by popular chips adding more capsaicin to their spicy variants. Delicacies from Mexico, such as morita sauce, are gaining a foothold in grocery stores within the southern parts of the country.

Shared cuisine between Mexico and the US may already have started to train your tongue to better tolerate spices. If you want to continue to build your tolerance, it’s just like working out—you start small and work your way up. Eventually, you’ll progressively deplete the substance P neurotransmitters that create the pain signals that spices’ capsaicin intends to excite.

The Properties of Peppers

Have you ever noticed that the cultures that love peppers are the ones closer to the equator? This may be more than just a coincidence, as peppers do offer some health benefits in addition to creating delicious meals. Spicy foods have antifungal and antibacterial properties. Such benefits may have caused some cultures to evolve with a preference for spices because of the microbial threats in those regions. As painful as peppers can be, the pungency also tells our brains that the food is cleaner, which can cultivate a preference for spicy foods since, on a subconscious level, you know those foods are the safest to eat.

These health benefits are perfect for cultures in the hotter climates near the equator. Hot and humid weather is the perfect place for microscopic threats to grow, making them more consistent issues for those cultures than ones in colder climates. Everything we do to prepare our food—drying, smoking, salting, cooking, or adding spices—is first and foremost an attempt to protect our food from hazards. These microscopic threats continue to evolve and mutate to try and get to us, but adding more spices and peppers will always protect our food by virtue of how clean peppers are and the natural antimicrobial properties they exhibit.

We hope this has shed some light on spicy foods and why people love them so much. Whether you’re looking to live a healthier lifestyle or simply competitive enough to want to see how much heat and pain you can tolerate, there are plenty of reasons to enjoy spices and make the effort to build up a tolerance in order to reap the benefits.

The Psychology Behind Spicy Foods and Why People Love Them