We all have those fire-eating friends who pour hot sauce and peppers on every meal. It’s thrilling, they insist. The burn is good for your health, they assert. We were just born with a love for heat, they smugly shrug.
But what actually makes someone seek that spicy sensation, while the rest of us cower in fear? And more importantly, how do those of us with tepid tongues become unabashed fire eaters ourselves? According to John Hayes, chili researcher and professor of food science at Pennsylvania State University, the transformation into a spice lover is actually pretty easy — no genetic modification involved.
Say Goodbye to Substance P
A big part of our palate comes from our parents. We all come to love the food we ate in childhood, as the dishes our parents served us become cravings for a sense of home after we’ve grown up and moved away. That’s true even when those dishes are incredibly spicy, turning weaker gourmands off.
“I’ve been a chili head much of my life,” Hayes tells Inverse by way of introduction. “So this is the old psychologist joke of research is me-search.”
People like Hayes who seem to have an otherworldly tolerance for spicy food might just be desensitized. Scientists think that substance P — the P is for pain — has actually been eaten away by spice consumption over time. After eating spicy foods long enough, you just don’t feel that much pain anymore.
Of course, even the biggest chili heads still have their limit. Professional pepper eaters eventually max out when a pepper’s Scoville Heat Unit — the official measurement of the hotness of a pepper — gets high enough. While you might train yourself to love a good, crunchy jalapeño pepper (3,000 SHUs), you’ll probably never truly enjoy the wrinkled, middle-finger-shaped Carolina reaper (2.2 million SHUs).
Seek Some New Sensations
But why some people become enthusiastic chili heads — let alone professional pepper eaters — might be even more important than the chemical role of substance P.
“Before 1492, the rest of the globe had never experienced the chili pepper,” Hayes says. For millennia, chili peppers were exclusively a New World food confined to the Americas. Columbus brought it back with him to Europe and, Hayes says, “in a generation or two, it had already spread to the Far East — which tells you that there’s something really compelling about the chili pepper.”
Though the pepper’s spread was unstoppable, not everyone got on board. One reason for this suspicion is likely related to preservation of traditional (bland?) cuisine.
But in the 1980s, Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, argued that people who love eating spicy food also seemed to have a correlationary love of rollercoasters and other thrilling activities. This indicated that chili heads and their ilk were sensation-seeking personalities who wanted to try anything wild. More mild personalities, by contrast, found less satisfaction in these thrills, whether it be mechanical drops or painful snacks.
In 2015, Hayes published a study on some of the personality traits that coincided with a love of spicy foods. He found that men reported liking spicy more than women. But women actually enjoyed the sensation of capsaicin, the chemical that gives spicy food its characteristic burning heat, more than men. This strange discrepancy, he argues, arises from the fact that men and women have different reasons for eating spicy food. While woman are typically seeking new sensations, men like to eat peppers literally so that they appear masculine
“If we think about a bunch of bros going out and being bros and showing off, ‘Oh I can eat the hottest wings at the wing fest,’ that’s not about liking the wings,” Hayes says. “It’s about… the social reward you get from being able to be real manly.”
The Benefits of Spicy Food
But rabble-rousing aside, recent research has suggested there are real health benefits to spicing up your life.
A 2015 study in the BMJ indicated that, over a seven year period, those who ate spicy food once a week or more reduced their chance of dying by 10 percent over those who ate bland food, likely due to their purported heart-healthy properties. Earlier this year, researchers also found that some of the best things to soothe stomach inflammation were peppers and marijuana. And while it’s not exactly life or death, in the dead of summer, spicy or otherwise hot foods can actually help you cool down by encouraging your body to sweat.
But these studies are often based on correlations made from survey data, not lab-controlled analyses of causation. That’s why Hayes believes the next frontier in chili science is more robust research of the ingredient’s medicinal properties. Specifically, we’ll have to parse if there are true chemical components that make capsaicin good for your health, if there’s some confounding factor, like the fact spicy foods slow down your eating, potentially leading to weight loss.
Spice lovers aren’t born; they’re made. Either resign yourself to a short life full of bland meals, or lean into the hot sauce.