Spicy Science – What is spice and Why we love the pain

We’ve all been there before… you take a small, innocent bite of something and all of a sudden, your mouth is on fire. 

Fire No GIF by Nickelodeon

You cuss, pant and squirm but the burning won’t stop. You drink one cup… two cups of water, yet the pain won’t subside. Those darned hidden chillies! 

After you’ve physically and mentally recovered, you wonder why in the hell do those chillies burn so much. And why is your friend across the table continuing to eat those tortuous goods?!


The biology of spice

First, let’s answer what spiciness actually is. We tend to say that something tastes spicy but the truth is, spiciness is not a taste.

Unlike sweetness, saltiness and sourness, spiciness is a sensation. When we eat spicy food,  certain compounds in the food stimulate receptors in our mouth called Polymodal Nociceptors and trigger a reaction. 

The funny thing is, Polymodal Nociceptors aren’t designed to detect spice compounds, but instead, designed to detect heat. These receptors are what gives us that burning sensation when we eat something that is too hot like scalding hot soup which you didn’t let cool down. This is why when we eat spicy food, we start to sweat and crave ice-cold water – because our mouth literally feels like it is burning. 

City Hunter Fire GIF

The opposite applies to foods like mint, which contain menthol in it. Menthol activates the receptors in our mouth responsible for detecting coolness, giving as that cool, fresh sensation. 


Different kinds of HOT

You might have noticed that not all spicy foods are spicy in the same way. Compare your encounters with chilli versus wasabi. Painful? 110%. But identical? Not quite. This is due to the different types of spicy compounds found in these foods.

The chilli type of spicy is a long-lasting tongue-burning kind of spicy. This is thanks to heavy, oil-like molecules such as Capsaicin and Piperine. They bind to your tongue and are difficult to dissolve due to their oil-like properties. 

If you’re thinking of drinking water to soothe the burn, don’t. In the same way that oil and water don’t mix, these spicy molecules and water don’t mix either. In fact, the water will spread the molecules around, worsening the pain. Instead, use milk or other dairy products to dissolve the spicy molecules in your mouth.

spicy post malone GIF by First We Feast: Hot Ones

The wasabi-type of spicy is a sudden-burn-up-your-nose kind of spicy. This is caused by lighter molecules known as Isothiocyanates. Their lightness allows them to easily float up into your sinuses, giving you that nose burn. Luckily, Isothiocyanates are water-soluble, meaning they leave as quickly as they come. You can cleanse them by consuming more food or water.


Love the burn 

There’s no doubt that the burning sensation of spice is an unpleasant feeling. So then why do people continue to eat spicy food anyway?

When we encounter this painful feeling, our body tries to counter this by releasing a feel-good chemical called Endorphin. Endorphins produce a sense of pleasure and euphoria which we also experience when we eat chocolate, laugh or exercise. It’s no wonder some people come back for more. 

Hot Sauce Kc GIF by Kim's Convenience


Further reading:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qD0_yWgifDM&ab_channel=TED-Ed – The science of spiciness – Ted Ed 

https://www.wired.com/2010/09/why-does-spicy-food-taste-hot/ Why does spicy food taste hot

https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/why-people-like-spicy-foods?rebelltitem=1#rebelltitem1 Why to people like spicy food 


5 Responses to “Spicy Science – What is spice and Why we love the pain”

  1. sgiarrusso says:

    Great post! Over time I seem to be getting worse at eating chilli, but I would still enter a chilli eating competition…BRING ON THE GHOST PEPPERS AND REAPERS

  2. Ellen says:

    I loved reading this because I have a friend who will eat so much spice that he gets violent hiccoughs, and I’ve never understood why he is so enthusiastic about it! Makes a little more sense now. I love spicy food but that is a whole new level. I love it! Thanks!

  3. Tom Davies says:

    Personally not a huge fan of spice but this was a very interesting read!

  4. XUFEI REN says:

    Your piece resonated with me! I really like it! In fact, I am still curious why eating spicy food often causes runny nose. I guess it may be because the pain stimulates the tear glands?

  5. Julia Mahoney says:

    Great article! Learnt so much about spice and I am loving the GIF’s!