The Science Behind Spicy Food
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The Science Behind Spicy Food

By Insa Akcoglu

Whether or not you like the burning sensation from a spicy pepper, the kick in the nose from a pungent wasabi, or the numbing sensation from Sichuan peppers, we can all agree these foods leave a lasting impression. Here’s why.

Let’s start with hot peppers, which contain the compound capsaicin. When consumed, capsaicin binds to nerve receptors called TVPR 1 in your mouth, which triggers the delivery of pain signals to the brain, similar to those sent when you encounter real heat. Your body reacts by trying to cool itself down, mainly through sweating. Capsaicin also irritates mucous membranes in your nasal cavity, which causes a runny nose.

What if you eat something too spicy? Most of us instinctively reach for a glass of water. However, water doesn’t do much, since capsaicin is actually hydrophobic. This means it repels water, like oil. Something with a high-fat content like milk or ice cream can help reduce the burning sensation, since dairy products contain the protein casein. Casein binds to capsaicin molecules and washes them away. Another alternative is something with high sugar content. The sweetness sends more signals to the brain, which may get confused by too many stimuli, reducing the burning sensation in your mouth.

Now, wasabi. Wasabi and horseradish contain a compound called allyl isothiocyanate, which is released when you cut or chew them. This is what gives wasabi and horseradish their pungent taste. Additionally, the vapors from allyl isothiocyanate travel up through your mouth to your naval cavity, triggering a response in the form of nose tingling or sneezing. 

Finally, Sichuan peppercorns. Sichuan peppercorns contain the compound hydroxy-alpha-sanshool, which stimulates touch receptors in your mouth, causing tingling and numbness. An experiment found that this tingling matched vibrations of 50 hertz, consistent with Meissner tactical receptors that send signals to the brain when the body comes into contact with vibrations from 10-80 hertz. 

The main reason why these plants trigger such strong reactions is related to evolution. One option to defend themselves is to trigger a chemical reaction if a predator bites into their flesh. So, if you’re ever tempted to experiment with a Sichuan peppercorn-crusted Jalapeno pepper stuffed with wasabi paste, and your intuition tells you to stay away, that’s just Mother Nature’s evolutionary work at play.


References

Amato, I. (2023, May 20). How your harsh reaction to horseradish may lead to new pain-managing medicines. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/how-your-harsh-reaction-to-horseradish-may-lead-to-new-pain-managing-medicines/2011/08/31/gIQAskEE4J_story.html

LeRoy, M. (2023). How to read the Scoville Pepper Scale. WebstaurantStore. https://www.webstaurantstore.com/blog/3790/what-is-the-scoville-scale.html

Pasricha, T. (2023, May 5). What happens to my body when I eat spicy food? The New York Times. Retrieved October 14, 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/05/well/eat/spicy-food-body-health.html?searchResultPosition=3

Silvestro, R. (2022, November 4). Why some like it hot: The science of spiciness. Phys.org. https://phys.org/news/2022-11-hot-science-spiciness.html

Stromberg, J. (2013, September 10). Why Szechuan Peppers Make Your Lips Go Numb. Smithsonian.com. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-szechuan-peppers-make-your-lips-go-numb-5668606/

Stumm, A. (2022, March 25). What are Sichuan peppercorns, and what is that tingle? Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street. https://www.177milkstreet.com/2022/03/what-are-sichuan-peppercorns

Webber, R. (2021, October 5). Horseradish and wasabi: Why do they burn your sinuses? Greatist. https://greatist.com/eat/why-do-horseradish-and-wasabi-burn-your-sinuses