Why do humans like spicy food? This is the question I found myself asking whilst running around the kitchen screaming after poking my eye with a hot paprika covered finger. Ok… well the first things I thought were ‘why am I such a fucking idiot’ and ‘will my I ever be able to see again without the world looking like its covered in red ants’, but I swear, intellectual intrigue followed closely.
Our obsession with spice is a relatively new trend – hot sauces have become increasingly popular, with sales in Srirachia sauce rising by 20% each year despite the fact they don’t actually advertise. They’ve even created a Srirachia beer incase you feel the need to get wasted AND burn your tastebuds off to earn your lad status. Interestingly, it’s the 18-to 34-year-old demographic which are the largest consumers as hot sauce. So either younger people have a higher tolerance or there is a generational shift toward spicier food choices.
The choices we make each time we decide what to eat are the result of complicated interactions between processes that include social norms, reinforcement, cost, cultural environment, physical environment and genetic predispositions. But these semi-masochistic food choices are even more complex to explain.
Psychologists have attributed enjoyment of spicy food to a mechanism called “hedonic reversal”. This is essentially where a negative association is somehow reversed to become positive. I suppose this is similar explanation of why people get off on being dripped with hot candle wax, take pleasure in the pain of tattoos or watch scary movies. The aversive messages sent to the brain by oral receptors after a few drops of hot sauce trigger dopamine firing which creates a pleasure sensation that overrides the pain. This is an impressive trait exclusive to humans, the ability to derive pleasure from pain.
One suggestion of how this association forms is that the cognitive mismatch between sensations that are safe but induce feelings of dear, anxiety or physical pain provides a thrill. We know the burning feeling of hot chillies only feels threatening but is not harmful (unless you put it in your eye… don’t do that… it hurts… a lot) – this inconsistency creates a thrill that generates neural signals of pleasure.
It’s also a common belief that ‘manlier’ men can take the heat of spicy foods. Beuge et al. (2010) found a positive correlation between testosterone and quantity of hot sauce consumed in male participants. Now this isn’t because testosterone reduces tolerance to spice but because higher testosterone levels drive men to seek thrills and take risks. I remember some guys at uni who created a curry club that forced the guys who ordered the least spicy dish to do a forefit….which involved eating a whole capsicum pepper. For some reason you are a more impressive person if you can pretend you haven’t lost all feeling in your mouth as you hide the tears falling from your eye. This lad culture associated with inflicting self-harm may have given a competitive edge to eating spicy food to prove virility and manliness.
So the combination of thrill, risk taking and social acceptance has flipped what should be an aversive experience to a pleasurable one. It’s quite amazing that the dopamine rush we get from thrill and social gratification is powerful enough to override evolutionary instincts that are furiously telling us to avoid pain and dangerous foods. Tapping into the mechanism of hedonic reversal could be a useful tool to encourage people to step outside their comfort zones and experience novel foods they don’t instantly love. If we could some how make people see consumption of insects, for example, as a dangerous or ‘manly’ act that generates an adrenaline rush, perhaps we could change people’s aversion to future trends that must be accepted in order to save the food system.
For all you spice lovers, here’s a recipe for a mango, black bean and avocado chilli guaranteed to fire up (sorry I couldn’t help myself) your dopamine receptors.
Blackbean chilli with chile-lime vinaigrette:
1 can black beans
1 punnet cherry tomatoes
1/2 red onion
1 bunch fresh coriander
Freshly squeezed lime or 2 tablespoons of lime juice
1 tsp. white balsamic vinegar
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon hot paprika (KEEP AWAY FROM EYES)
2 garlic cloves
1 fresh chillis
2 tablespoons olive oil
1. Chop the avocado, chillies, mango and cherry tomatoes into chunks and dice the red onion.
2. Mix together the beans, mango, onion, tomatoes, coriander and chillies.
3. Heat on a low light for 10-15 mins to soften
4. Whisk together the lime juice, olive oil, minced garlic, cumin, chilli powder, salt, pepper in a small bowl.
5. Drizzle over black bean mixture and toss gently. Garnish with avocado and sprinkled chilli flakes.