Why do we like spicy food?

But he has evidence for what he calls benign masochism. For example, he tested chili eaters by gradually increasing the pain, or, as the pros call it, the pungency, of the food, right up to the point at which the subjects said they just could not go further. When asked after the test what level of heat they liked the best, they chose the highest level they could stand, “just below the level of unbearable pain.” As Delbert McClinton sings (about a different line of research), “It felt so good to hurt so bad.”…

Other mammals have not joined the party. “There is not a single animal that likes hot pepper,” Dr. Rozin said. Or as Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist, puts it, “Philosophers have often looked for the defining feature of humans — language, rationality, culture and so on. I’d stick with this: Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce.”

- James Gorman, N.Y. Times.

Good reading from the Times examining why some peppers are spicy and why we enjoy spicy foods. In short: It’s unclear, and apparently “because they’re good” is not an acceptable explanation.

I like spicy foods a lot myself, definitely toward the spicier end of the normal spectrum — spicy enough that if a food is too spicy for me I get all sanctimonious because food shouldn’t be that spicy and who the hell do you think you are, restaurant serving food I can’t handle?

But that said, I find that I especially like spicy foods seasoned with fresh peppers rather than hot sauce or cayenne powder or whatever. This is a relatively recent discovery made largely because of all the hot peppers I grew this summer — and it could be all in my head — but it seems like they bring a more balanced, flavorful heat rather than just pure burning.

For what it’s worth, one time in college I went to a lauded Buffalo wing place out in Virginia with my roommate Rich and his girlfriend. They had something called The Flatliner on the menu and a plaque on the wall celebrating the names of everyone who had ever managed to eat six. Plus you had to sign a waiver just to try one. Serious stuff.

Rich is a Navy man, ever eager to demonstrate his manhood, and I am innately competitive, so we both ordered a half-dozen Flatliners.

The waiter talked us out of it.

“Don’t even bother,” he said.

We tried to convince him that we could handle them, but he promised us we couldn’t and even said he’d buy the next six if we could finish off the first order between the two of us.

We took one bite each and couldn’t eat anything else we ordered. We wound up stretched out on the bench seats in the back of Rich’s minivan, shivering for the length of the half hour drive home.

Those wings were too spicy.

Also, fun fact about peppers: Anaheim peppers, bell peppers, cayenne peppers, jalapeno peppers and poblano peppers are all the same species, capsicum annuum. Just different breeds, kind of like dogs.

Hat tip to my wife for the link.

3 thoughts on “Why do we like spicy food?

  1. I like spicy, but to a point. Once it gets beyond flaor and just flat out pain, whats the point. I like the spice to be just enough to cause a solid forehead sweat to develope.

  2. Endorphins. The pain releases pleasure. There’s a feeling of eurphoria when you’re in the midst of it because that evolved probably to helped wounded animals survive rather than curl up and want to die.

  3. Ted,

    Excellent link. This is right up my alley. I could never handle heat. I think that had something to do with my mother’s irish cooking: salt, pepper, butter, end of story.

    But after college I started eating more and more spice. I now grow habaneros, jalapenos, serranos, and others in my backyard. I live in the city (Baltimore) and back up to an alley. Previous years’ crops of tomatoes and squash have been decimated by rodents of unusual size, but they don’t mess with the peppers, either, just like the dude talked about with the deer.

    I had an ulcer, and it has pretty much all healed up, possibly in part to these peppers. Nobody believe this, but it’s science, man!

    A dude at work grew jolokias (ghost peppers) this year and he gave me one. I tried some slivers raw and holy sh*tballs. But I can say I did it. I asked him why he likes the spicy stuff (way more tolerance than I) and his reply compared the hottest of the hot to Everest. Why do people climb it? Because it’s there, man.

    Side note: If you ever want an awesome habenero salsa, core the habaneros and some other peppers, tomatoes, onion, and a pineapple core (in cubes) and throw them into a glass brownie pan. Roast em until the tips brown. Put the whole thing into a blender (since you already removed the cores, stems, etc) and add fresh cilantro. Zap until smooth. Super-awesome. The sweetness of the pineapple complements the kick of the habanero. One or two habeneros usually do the trick.

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