What is spice?

By: Isaac Lund

Image taken from: sciencenewsforstudents.org

Chances are, you’ve tried something spicy before. Be it a spicy potato chip or a ghost pepper, any spicy treat is bound to leave that delicious heat in your mouth. But, have you ever thought about what causes that pain so signature of all hot food? Do you know the science behind what makes something spicy?

Cuisines all over the world—India, Mexico, China, have used the art of implementing spice into food to captivate millions, no, billions of people around the globe. Those who first practiced this culinary technique were putting science to work, whether they knew it or not.

Capsaicin, an organic chemical produced within peppers, is the culprit behind the madness. Pepper plants produce this compound to turn away predators planning on eating their fruit, a deterrent that has completely backfired over the course of history. As soon as the pepper touches your tongue, Capsaicin molecules seek out pain receptors, called VR1s, in your taste buds, and latch on. Your brain is signaled, and the burning ensues. Although it may feel like you will end up shriveled and burnt, no physical damage is really dealt to your mouth and tongue.

While many like to boast about their “spice tolerance”, the heat becomes too much for everyone at a certain point. Oh no! Better get a cool glass of water! Not. Capsaicin, in the form it attacks you in, at least, is an oil. Water and oil don’t mix, and the spice will only be spread around your poor mouth. Grab a glass of milk or some ice cream instead: the oils and fats here will dissolve clingy capsaicin and carry it down your throat.

And anyways, tolerance is no excuse for having an aversion to spice. Although some scaredy-cats may argue that others have built a tolerance for spice through repetitive exposure, this is actually impossible; your VR1s will forever react to capsaicin in the exact same way. So, how do some handle the heat so well? They’ve simply come to enjoy the burn.

For more information, please visit:

  • sciencenewsforstudents.org

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