You’ve surely observed the phenomenon - someone wolfing down a bowl of food that makes them pour sweat, while nobody else in the vicinity seems to want to be within a five foot radius of their food - but maybe you haven’t put much thought to it. Why do people react differently to spicy foods?
Some differences in sensitivity can certainly be chalked up to an acquired taste for spice. Some people like spicy food from their first taste though, and others go their entire lives without enjoying it. There’s more at work here than just acclimatizing your tongue to the spice.
What causes the burn in spicy food?
You need to know what causes the burn before you can understand why some people are more sensitive to the burn!
Capsaicin is the compound found in all hot chilli peppers (although absent in peppercorns or more acute spicy foods, like wasabi) that’s responsible for the spice. Capsaicin stimulates receptors in your tongue (or anywhere on the body that enough of it comes into contact with) that relay a message back to your brain that you’re being burned. Your brain responds by signalling with pain.
Capsaicin doesn’t actually cause physical burning - contrary to what many people feel - and the sensation is almost always gone within half an hour after eating your spicy food. This leads us to one of spicy food expert Chef Bill Phillips’ speculative insights about why people respond differently to spicy food.
Some folk have strong mental game
Like a monk who’s trained long enough to be able to nullify the pain response from laying on a bed of nails or walking on hot coals, it’s possible for someone to overpower the pain response from hot chilli peppers by simply acknowledging that it’s all in their head.
Of course, telling yourself that won’t immediately rid you of the pain of hot chilli peppers. If you’re not already well-practiced in terms of your mental strength, this will probably take some time.
It’s possible that some hard-headed individuals - the type who can stub their toe and not make a noise - are inherently better at dealing with spicy food than others.
Thrill seekers love hot food
Research has been done on thrill seekers - people who love rollercoasters, extreme sports, rock climbing, car racing, etc. - and their preference for spicy food.
It has been shown, time and again, that there’s a positive correlation between people who actively seek thrills in their life and the amount of spicy food they like to eat. This makes sense - part of the human body’s pain response is to stimulate the brain’s production of adrenaline and noradrenaline.
These two neurotransmitters are responsible for a ton of things - including much of the fight or flight response, as well as pain inhibition and a really intense rush. These extreme feelings are often what adrenaline junkies, or extreme thrill-seekers, often try to chase. Eating hot chilli peppers can cause a release of these same two compounds, as well as endorphins, leading to something known as a chilli high.
Chilli heads develop a tolerance to spicy food
As we mentioned earlier, it’s possible to develop a tolerance to spicy food.
Turns out, this isn’t just as simple as your body becoming accustomed to the sensation of being burned - though this does play a huge role. Just like you can overcome the dreaded taste of broccoli as a five-year-old and learn to enjoy it, you can learn to enjoy the burn of spice.
In addition to that, there’s a neurotransmitter known as substance P that plays a huge part in your brain’s ability to send and receive pain signals. Eating spicy food in high amounts and continually ‘burning’ your tongue (or otherwise being in lots of pain all the time) tends to deplete your brain of substance P, diminishing your response to painful stimuli.
This is great for chilli heads, because a lot of people don’t get a chance to appreciate the finer subtleties of spicy food - they think chilli heads are crazy folk who just love sweating and being in pain.
Once you’ve developed a tolerance for hot food, you can enjoy chilli peppers and other spicy things without having the flavours overshadowed by the burn. This means you can appreciate the fruity flavours that a lot of hot chilli peppers provide that most of the world never gets to enjoy!
People eat spicy food for different reasons
This links up with what we said earlier about a strong state of mind being able to overpower the burn from a chilli pepper. If you go into a situation with a strong intention and a lot of confidence, you’ll be more likely to be successful in your attempt.
If someone tries spicy food for the first time while they’re intimidated by the spice factor and afraid of what they're going to feel, they’re going to like the burn less. The association of fear and a dislike of the pain will stick with them.
On the other hand, if someone jumps into a spicy lifestyle with vigor (a lot of men do this - and are likewise shown to more frequently eat spicy food to garner attention from their friends, compared to women who more often like the kick) then they’ll more likely associate spicy food with confidence and leisure.
There’s a lot of different spicy flavours out there, and a lot of reasons for people to indulge in the spicy side of culinary magic.
It turns out that your reasons for consuming spice actually have a huge impact on how you’ll perceive that spice once it hits your tongue. Like anything, if you’re afraid of what will happen, you’re more likely to panic and develop a negative response. If you approach chilkis with excitement, you’ll have a more pleasant response.
Personality traits, intention, and the amount of chillis you’ve eaten in the past all contribute to the ultimate sensitivity a person will have to spicy food.