Last month we wrote about some very interesting health benefits of spicy foods. This time we will focus on what causes the sensation of “hot”.
Have you ever wondered why spicy salsa causes your mouth to burn? If you thought of something like chili peppers, then you’re not alone. But what is it about chili peppers that causes the physical burning sensation of pain that makes some people pant like a thirsty dog?
Being that I consume “hot” foods somewhat regularly this is what I set out to learn. The answer turned out to be a little more complex than I had anticipated. It turns out there are many different types of receptors in your tongue. To keep things simple, we will narrow our scope to only the ones that are involved in this biological process. These receptors are called nociceptors, and they are stimulated by temperature changes and physical changes such as cutting or pitching (Green, n.d.). Ok, now that we have identified the receptors we now need to figure out what is stimulating them.
The answer is capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili peppers. This chemical arouses the receptors that respond to increases in temperature. The problem is that the brain doesn’t seem to be able to distinguish if the pain in your mouth is being derived from burning or a physical sensation like pinching. Its isn’t totally clear but scientist believe the brain just gets confused when the nociceptors are stimulated by capsaicin, causing it to feel both painful sensations (Lehrer, 2010).
In short, capsaicin is fooling pain receptors in your tongue whose actual purpose is to detect other sensations related to pain like biting your tongue.
What is your favorite spicy food? Of course, ours is salsa. Our Gourmet Pineapple salsa is both spicy and sweet if you are into that sort of thing. Try it out here.
Green, B. (n.d.). Why is it that eating spicy, “hot” food causes the same physical reactions as does physical heat (burning and sweating, for instance)? Retrieved from Scientific American : https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-is-it-that-eating-spi/