Only food prudes are afraid to dabble with a little hot sauce now and then. But why any of us enjoy it at all? Capsaicin, the chemical behind hotness, causes your brain to literally think your tongue is on fire.
Scientists are at a loss as to why we adore spicy stuff, says the New York Times. Beyond culinary taste, there are verified medical benefits – spicy foods lower blood pressure, potentially knock out other bodily pains, and maybe even help fight microbes. But humans have been pouring hot things on their food since long, long we had any understanding of our bodies – evidence of hot pepper cultivation dates back to 4000 BC.
Maybe, some scientists think, we’re just wired to be gluttons for pain. University of Pennsylvania’s Paul Rozin thinks each time you slather your sausage with some kind of atomic pepper death paste, you’re exhibiting what he terms “benign masochism”. A recent study of Dr Rozin’s showed that subjects, when consuming an increasingly hot pepper sampler, chose as their favourite the one just bearably hot. Which means people still love getting burned. And we might just be doing it for the quick thrill: “Mind over body. My body thinks I’m in trouble, but I know I’m not,” says Rozin.
It may just be one of those strange quirks of being a human. “Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce,” quips Yale psychologist Paul Bloom. And Tabasco sauce is the least of it. Typical extreme hot sauces, favourites of benign masochists everywhere, run up into the hundreds of thousands of Scoville heat units – that bottle of Tabasco in your kitchen is only 5000, tops. And radical pain peppers are a huge business in the US, from the hundreds of varieties you can purchase at enthusiast shops to corporate giants like McCormick to issue an annual Flavour Forecast – a report of which spicy trends will grace edibles anywhere from Doritos to the chicest haute cuisine eateries.
The whole red-faced industry may verge on the lunatic at times – I mean, really, some of the sauces can only be sampled on the tip of a toothpick without sending you to the emergency room – but there is something comforting about our uniquely human taste buds. The rest of the animal world either lacks the neurological faculties to experience the burn of a chilli or avoids the stuff altogether. In fact, the presence of capsaicin in peppers might be decidedly anti human, a defence mechanism to keep curious foragers from taking a bite – scientists have found the chemical stings us the exact same way as tarantula venom. But here we are, dumping it in our soup and daring one another to slurp a spoonful down. It may be a little perverse, but it’s our little perversion.