Growing up, I never really indulged in spicy foods. This is primarily because nobody in my household cared for it, or could even handle the spice level. I am half Filipina, and most Asian cuisine is known for its spiciness. In fact, spiciness is most dominant in Asian cuisine compared to western cuisine. So, it could be pretty shocking that I did not grow up eating spicy foods, but I guess it’s all just based on preference.
I finally got exposed to one of my first spicy food snacks around second or third grade- Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. My elementary school had a small snack bar for students to buy food during our second recess of the day. They served baked goods, chips and bottled drinks for around 50 cents to around $2. The most popular snack item at that time was, you guessed it, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. I vividly remember so many of my classmates running to the snack bar right when recess began so they could get their hands on a bag. I wanted to join in on the hype I knew nothing about, so I bought my first bag. I remember the scent of spiciness going up my nose when I opened the chips. I put my first Flamin’ Hot Cheeto in my mouth, and for someone who has never had spice before, Lord was it spicy. It’s almost hard to believe that I found one tiny little chip with the bare minimum of spiciness so overbearing. I anxiously ran to the water fountain and downed all the water I needed to take the spiciness away. It’s safe to say I did not understand that hype at all.
Over the years since then, I started to love spicy foods more and more. I finally found my Flamin’ Hot Cheetos tolerance, started to put Sriracha and Tabasco on everything and engaged in spicy Asian Cuisine. Although I’ve adapted to the firey sensation, my household, along with many other people, have not. This is when I started to question: Why do some people love the painful pleasure of spicy foods, while others do not?
Because spicy foods appear to be more of a staple in other cultures, I figured that could possibly play as a factor to why some people like spicy foods more than others. I thought that if somebody is more familiar with the spicy sensation, then perhaps they have more of a love for it.
“Do Caucasian American and South Asian Indian cultural groups differ in sensitivity to capsaicin?” is a study by Danica Berry and Christopher Simons for the Journal of Food Science that covers a case study between the two cultural groups and their spice tolerance. Right off the bat, one reason I thought that contributed to the admiration of spice was the exposure to spicy foods in different cultures. This case study dives into my thoughts by comparing Caucasian Americans’ and South Asian Indians’ typical reactions to spicy foods.
First of all, you might be wondering what the heck capsaicin is. The Michigan Medicine, a part of the University of Michigan defines it as “the ingredient found in different types of hot peppers, such as cayenne peppers, that makes the peppers spicy hot.” Basically, this is what causes your senses to react to such spiciness.
Now going back to the case study, the Caucasian Americans and South Asian Indians were “exposed to a capsaicin (100 parts per million/ppm) stimulus on the tongue, cheek, hard palate, and lip and rated the intensity of irritation every 30 s, over a 10‐min period.” (Berry, Simmons, 2020). This was done to compare metrics related to chili pepper use as well as liking.
As for the results, “Overall sensitivity to capsaicin in the oral cavity did not differ between the groups, nor were responses different between the groups depending on the oral cavity area stimulated. These data suggest a limited role of cultural attributes on capsaicin sensitivity between Caucasian Americans and South Asian Indians.” (Berry, Simmons, 2020).
I, personally, find this shocking because I was certain that South Asian Indians would have a noticeable sensitivity compared to Caucasian Americans because their cuisine includes more spiciness compared to that of Caucasian Americans. Perhaps alterations, such as a higher exposure to capsaicin, would have made a notable difference.
“Why do people living in hot climates like their food spicy” is an article by James S. Thornton that discusses different countries’ likings to spicy foods, as well as the benefits to consuming them. Personally, the thought that the region you live in could possibly impact one’s liking in spicy foods never crossed my mind, so I found this interesting.
The article starts off by discussing a 1999 Bioscience study. They found that “in India, with a mean average temperature of 26.9 C, traditional meat-based dishes incorporate 31 times as many spices per recipe as in Poland, where the mean average temperature is 7.8 C.” (Thornton, 2015). This was a key finding because other countries ended up following this trend.
Thornton then begins to talk about capsaicin, which we are familiar with. He suggests that perhaps these regions consume spicy foods because “hot spices disguised the smell and taste of spoiled foods, making these more palatable.” (Thornton, 2015). Though this thought does seem rather peculiar, because who wants to eat spoiled foods, it’s something worth pondering about. For example, if someone can’t afford food much, they will definitely eat all they have, even if it is a little spoiled. Maybe spices can be incorporated there.
Evidence also suggests that capsaicin could benefit people, as the article mentions it can help pain management and tumor inhibition. However on the other side of the spectrum, consuming too much capsaicin could have a negative effect on one’s body. So regions consuming spicy foods should do it in moderation to avoid anything harmful. This information is intriguing, however it doesn’t directly answer the question.
To further dive into the question, Paul Sherman, Ph.D, an evolutionary biologist and his colleague Jennifer Billing took their interest into cookbooks. The two looked through 93 traditional cookbooks that came from 36 different countries. They looked for meat-based recipes, since vegetables don’t spoil as fast as meat does, and tried to notice trends from up to five generations. They also compared “spice use with the mean annual temperature of nations where the recipes are popular.” (Thornton, 2015).
The pair ended up analyzing a grand total of 4,578 recipes. As a result 93% of these recipes “called for at least one spice per dish and frequently many more.” (Thornton, 2015). Sherman found that “as average temperatures increased among countries, there were significant increases in both the fraction of recipes calling for at least one spice and the mean number of spices per recipe.” (Thronton, 2015).
I find these findings intriguing, and they seem to make sense. In places where the climate is hotter, you have to find alternative foods to eat if your typical foods spoil faster. Since chilies and spices have a longer shelf life, they are an easy resort. In addition, these foods tend to be easier to grow in such climates. Because of that, they can easily become an easy first resort food, in which by consuming a great amount can boost your tolerance
A video from the Youtube Channel, SciShow, called “Why Do Some People Tolerate Spicy Food?” could give us the answer. The video is very short, but informative and is narrated by Hank Green.
Scientists actually, don’t directly know why some people can have “sriracha in their blood,” but TRPV1 could play a role. TRPV1 is a sensory receptor that detects spiciness. Hank states,
“TRPV1 is a little protein that opens up in response to physical temperature, but also when fiery molecules like capsaicin bind to it, which is why a bite of jalapeno will make your tongue feel like it’s on fire.” (SciShow, 2017)
In addition, because our gene sequences are different some of us could have a more responsive TRPV1 than others, which contributes to why some people will tolerate spice more than others. Another factor that is associated with this is how often one uses their TRPV1 receptors. If you consume lots of capsaicin, you become used to the spicy sensation, therefore you will have to consume more of it in order to taste the spiciness at the level of others who don’t consume a lot of capsaicin experience. One final possibility is if you grew up eating spicy foods, you could have learned to enjoy them, hence having a tolerance for spicy foods.
To see if my findings correlate with the people around me and to offer some sort of validation, I made a Google Form and surveyed 47 people of different ages and ethnicities. The questions I asked were on the basis of: age, gender, ethnicity, and questions about their spicy food tolerance. This includes if they grew up eating spicy foods, if they know people in their household that enjoy spicy foods and to what extent they can handle spiciness.
The survey participants were aged 16–65 years old. Out of the 47 participants, 40 of them were female, 6 were male and 1 identified as nonbinary. The ethnicity percentages go as follows: 34% Asian, 25% White, 23% Mixed, 0.08% Hispanic, 0.04% Middle Eastern, 0.02% Ethiopian and 0.02% Tongan.
When I asked if they liked spicy foods, I divided it into 3 categories. The first category was “Yes, but every once in a while,” the second was “Yes, I can eat spicy foods at least once daily,” and the third was “No, my tongue burning doesn’t excite me.” The first category received a grand total of 24 votes, the second received 19 and the third received 4. All together, 43 participants do consume spicy foods while 4 do not. I find this information interesting because when you look at the ethnicities of the non-consumers, there is no trend to be found. All of the ethnicities were mixed, so it showed me that not consuming spicy foods isn’t restricted to a certain ethnicity.
To see to what extent the participants could handle spiciness, I created a 1–5 scale with 1 being the lowest amount of spiciness to 5 being the most. 21 participants voted for the 4th level, 14 voted for the third level, 5 voted for the 2nd level, 4 voted for the 5th (and spiciest level) and 3 voted for the 1st level (which is merely nothing). I, again, found this data interesting for the same exact reason as before. There is no trend shown in who likes spicy foods. The ethnicities and age groups are all over the place.
For the next question, I asked if the participants grew up eating spicy foods. As for the results, 17 participants said “no”, 16 said “yes”, 11 said “sometimes” and 3 said “not really.” I found this intriguing because it follows the trend in data that I’ve been receiving. The ethnicities and age groups were in every category, again.
Next, I asked if anybody in their household consumes spicy foods. The results showed that 34 participants had at least one person in their household who consumes spicy foods, while the other 13 did not. This set of data really showed me that it’s just based on preference. You can learn to adapt to spicy foods, like the members in your family, you can go your own route of liking spicy foods, or you may just not like it at all.
For fun, I asked the participants what their favorite spicy food or snack was. This question wasn’t mandatory, so the ones who don’t have one did not participate. Here, I saw a trend. More than a handful of my participants said hot chips were their favorite snack, including Hot Cheetos, Hot Fries and Takis. The next significant answer was hot wings (which are also my favorite, especially from Wingstop! YUM). Others had different answers like different ethnic dishes, such as kimchi, pho, curry and spicy noodles. The most outstanding answer here was “putting sriracha in a Bloody Mary.”
The final thing I put on the survey was an additional comments page. I am glad I did this because I received two outstanding comments out of them all. The first one said “Erythromelalgia and spicy food — I can’t eat spicy food bc of this.” I have never heard of this condition before, so I went straight to Google. MedlinePlus defines Erythromelalgia as “a condition characterized by episodes of pain, redness, and swelling in various parts of the body, particularly the hands and feet. These episodes are usually triggered by increased body temperature, which may be caused by exercise or entering a warm room.” I was completely unaware of this condition, so being aware of it definitely helped. The thought of having a condition that makes you unable to consume spicy foods never occurred to me. The second outstanding comment I got was about the Ethiopian spice, “berbere.” The participant told me that berbere is a spice that is in most Ethiopian dishes, hence why they grew up consuming it and drawing a liking for spicy foods. These little comments made my research more interesting and genuine.
I have always had the pondering question of why some people like spicy foods and others don’t. As for me, I didn’t like spicy foods at first, but now I LOVE them, and I wanted to see why that is. It all has to do with your TRPV1 receptors, with outside factors also playing a part (if applicable). My TRPV1 sensors had to have been on the “baby side” when I first consumed Hot Cheetos. Now that I’ve adapted to spicy chips and spicy foods in general, my sensors have as well! I am no longer intimidated by Hot Cheetos and I have no problem ordering spicy foods and consuming them daily.