Life with Spice
I must confess, dear readers, I am not a fan of spicy foods. Compared to the rest of the population, I am, in fact, a wimp. Black pepper is too much for me at times. My father and sister, on the other hand, love to eat spicy foods in moderate amounts. My brother in law, who hails from Jamaica, lives breathes and dies by spice. So, it is no wonder that the rest of the US is divided on the issue of spice. However, it does have me thinking, is there a benefit to eating spicy food in your regular diet, or is it dangerous? The only way to find out is to research as much as I possibly can on the subject matter. So, let’s dive in on the wonderful world of spicy food.
What Makes Spicy Food Hot?
In order to find out what makes food spicy, we first have to look into two key elements. The first is the chemical composition behind the plants that we call spicy. The thing that causes heat in peppers and other plants is called Capsaicin (pronounced cap-say-a-sin). It is an organic compound produced by the seeds in these plants and is the active ingredient that gives spicy food its heat. There are botanists that hypothesize that peppers produce capsaicin to ward off intruders that try to eat it.
The second thing that we need to figure out is why our tongues can pick up things like heat in the first place. This is thanks to a class of pain receptors called vanilloid (VR1). They bind to the capsaicin that naturally grows in the seeds of the spicy plants which creates a sensation of pain. The same kind of pain that comes when you hover an open hand over a hot stove. The kind of signal that tells us that there is damage being done to the body. However, when these capsaicin molecules are bound via oils from the peppers to the VR1 receptors, no damage is actually being done to the body. In other words, spice is just a false alarm that triggers pain.
But why would people put themselves through physical pain if it is an unpleasant sensation?
The answer to that is what happens after the initial feeling of pain, dopamine.
As our bodies feel pain, our brains do their best to compensate by pumping endorphins and dopamine. Both of them block pain and create a sensation of pleasure. People who have felt the pain from eating something spicy also felt the reward of pleasure through dopamine, and try to seek out that feeling again.
The Measurement of Spice
Now that we know what makes food spicy and why people eat spicy food in the first place, it leaves me and possibly you wondering, is there a reason why some foods are spicier than others? Is there even a way we could tell which pepper is hotter than others? How do you know if something is too spicy or not spicy enough? Well, there is a way to measure how hot a pepper is against another, and we call it the Scoville scale.
According to Wikipedia, peppers are processed and measured in the Scoville scale by determining the exact weight of a dried pepper is dissolved in alcohol to extract the heat components (capsaicinoids), then diluted in a solution of sugar water. Decreasing concentrations of the extracted capsaicinoids are given to a panel of five trained tasters until a majority (at least three) can no longer detect the heat in a dilution. The heat level is based on this dilution, rated in multiples of 100 SHU.
However, it has been pointed out that there is a level of subjectivity at play when it comes to taste. And after time, people just get used to tasting the same thing over and over again. This criticism has been acknowledged and a new scale is coming out of the woodwork thanks to Dr. Paul W. Bosland, from the University of New Mexico. He and other scientists are devising a new scale by determining how many parts per million of heat-causing alkaloids are present in a pepper. Here’s hoping that we will get more accurate over time.
Next week, we will find out if there are nutritional values to be found in spicy foods like peppers.