Understanding Our Attraction to the Chili Pepper
Accidentally burning one’s mouth on fresh-from-the-oven pizza and taking a bite out of a spicy chicken wing - though seemingly distinct sensations - activate the same pain receptors found on the tongue.
Capsaicin, the source of the heat in chili peppers, is the chemical irritant responsible for the bite. The most common of all spicy seasonings, one-quarter of adults worldwide feel its burn every day.
Capsaicin acts directly on the same pain receptors that detect potentially harmful heat. How did we, as a species, develop our perverse desire to suffer - and enjoy - chili’s painful burn? Are we masochistic gastronomes?
The Chili Pepper, though synonymous with modern cuisine, is only a recent addition to our culinary repertoire. The chili pepper’s use in western society dates back to the time of Columbus. In January 1493 he recorded the following in his journal, “toda la gente no come sin ella, que la halla muy sana” (they eat nothing without it, and deem it very wholesome). Bernardo de las Casas, accompanying Columbus, noted that, “without chili, [Mexican Indians] do not think they are eating.”
Drawing from the Codex Mendoza depicting aspects of Aztec life. A child is being punished by being held over the smoke of burning chili peppers.
In Mexico there is evidence of chili pepper consumption dating back to 7000 B.C. Domestication likely began around 1500 B.C. Columbus and subsequent explorers brought Peppers back to the Europe. By 1650 peppers were being cultivated throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
The rapid spread of the chili may have been facilitated by the strong demand for black pepper. Chili peppers provide a similar burning experience but are much less costly. Today, in terms of total expenditures, black pepper is the only spice with a bigger trade volume worldwide. Chili pepper is the most widely consumed.
India and China are currently the biggest producers of the peppers; China is the biggest exporter. Koreans, who possess the hottest of all cuisines, have the highest intake of chili peppers per capita, more than 9 grams per person per day.
The extent to which one feels heat is determined by the quantity and concentration of capsaicin found in the food being ingested. In 1912, Professor Wilber Scoville developed a subjective method to measure spiciness in hot peppers. In the original test, ground chilies were blended with sugar water. A panel of testers sipped the solution in increasingly diluted concentrations until the liquid no longer burned their mouths. The threshold for detection, based on concentration, determines a pepper’s rating.
Pure capsaicin rates between 15,000,000 and 16,000,000 Scoville Units. Sweet bell peppers have no heat while habanero peppers come in at 300,000+ Scoville units. The record for the hottest chili pepper, as noted by the Guinness Book of Records, is the Naga Jolokia, measuring over 1,000,000 on the Scoville scale.
Is there an adaptive benefit to chili pepper consumption?
Our adverse reaction to capsaicin remains a mystery to scientists. The innocuous substance causes no ill effect, yet is interpreted by our taste buds as something that should be avoided. The irritation exhibited may be the result of a now defunct defense mechanism that evolved to detect dangerous foods. It may be a lucky accident.
In recent years, scientists have uncovered what may be an adaptive benefit to chili use. Chili peppers are rich in vitamins A and C; among rural Mexicans they provide as much as one-third of the Vitamin A found in their diets.
Dr. Paul Sherman and Jennifer Billing, working at Cornell University, argue that the spice contains antibiotic chemicals capable of suppressing potentially dangerous bacteria and fungi that contaminate or spoil foods. They analyzed 4,570 recipes from 93 cookbooks representing the traditional cuisines of 36 countries.
Hot peppers inhibit the growth of 75% of food borne bacteria (garlic, onion, allspice and oregano were found to be the best all-around bacteria killers). The estimated amount of food-spoilage bacteria inhibited by the spices was greater in hot than in cold climates. Sherman and Billing report,
“Countries with hotter climates used spices more frequently than countries with cooler climates. Indeed, in hot countries nearly every meat-based recipe calls for at least one spice, and most include many spices, especially the potent spices, whereas in cooler counties substantial fractions of dishes are prepared without spices, or with just a few.”
Masochistic Tendencies - A Uniquely Human Trait
In the animal kingdom, only birds and humans regularly consume hot peppers, and birds don’t sense the presence of capsaicin. Rats do not develop a preference for peppers, even after repeated laboratory exposure. A survey of dogs and pigs living in Mexican villages, where scrap-fed animals regularly consume chili peppers, reveals no preference for spicy foodstuffs.
In some higher order animals, developing a preference does appear possible. In 1983, Rozin and Kennel were able to foster a liking for spicy foods in two captive chimps. Rozin has postulated that eating chili peppers may release endorphins � the same endorphins released after hard exercise or sex.
Typically, a liking for chili arises after a number of unpleasant - even painful - experiences with the peppers. Socialization appears to be critical in developing a preference. Children under two tend to reject chili outright, as do adults who have never tried it. Social forces encourage children to continue to sample the unpleasantly spicy foods, which might otherwise be avoided after the first disagreeable taste. It’s not unlike young adults who develop a taste for alcohol, cigarettes, or coffee. Individuals repeatedly try and use these substances because they want to be included and identified with a their family and peers.
Interviews with Mexican adults detailing early experiences with chili indicate that chili is introduced gradually into the young child’s diet. The gradual introduction may be reinforced by the release of endorphins (a definitive study has yet to be performed) and the enjoyment of constrained risks, a term psychologists have dubbed ‘benign masochism’. This uniquely human trait is comparable to riding a roller coaster; the mind realizes the activity is safe but the body does not.
Most individuals, myself included, report a fondness for the taste of chili pepper. The rapid spread of the chili pepper on a worldwide scale is both surprising and understandable. We enjoy the added level of complexity, and the pain, but only as long as it is on our own terms.