Spiciness is actually not a taste or flavor — it’s your body sensing the presence of certain chemicals, also called chemesthesis. The chemicals in peppers and other spicy foods can be a deterrent to some animals and serve as a protective mechanism for a plant, but some humans have developed an affinity for this feeling and seek it out in their cuisine. As one study puts it, some people exhibit a preference for oral burn.
Interestingly, studies now show this love for heat is also linked to certain personality traits. If you love the heat of spicy food, you may be a thrill-seeker. People who like spicy foods are attracted to the burning sensation of a compound called capsaicin, which causes a mild feeling of pain when eaten. Chili peppers are commonly associated with spiciness, which is rated on the Scoville scale and measures capsaicin content.
A 2013 study in the Food Quality and Preference Journal describes the many factors that affect a love of spicy foods, ranging from social or cultural influences, how many times you’ve been exposed to capsaicin, physical differences in the sensation of spiciness and a person’s personality traits.
This study also shows that those who seek more frequent chili intake exhibit qualities of “sensation seeking,” or the need for new and complex sensations and “sensitivity to reward behaviors,” which support the researcher’s hypothesis that personality plays a role in whether a person likes spice or not.
There’s good reason to include spices for health as well as for the adventure of eating hot foods. A 2014 study found that healthy compounds in spices, namely flavonoids, work as antioxidants and are associated with a reduced risk of chronic disease.
Capsaicin in particular has been studied extensively in relation to reducing cancer risk, even at relatively low to medium intake levels. Many studies show the most benefit from spices at higher intake levels, so finding ways to include a variety of spices in your diet on a regular basis may offer benefits outside of the kitchen.
If you’re averse to spice but want to enjoy a mild level of capsaicin-containing foods, try sweeter peppers like the Anaheim, ancho, sweet bell or poblano. Increase the heat in your foods by trying Cholula hot sauce, horseradish or wasabi and serrano or jalapeno peppers.
If these medium peppers and sauces are too spicy, start with a very small quantity and work your way up, as studies show that repeat exposure is also associated with enjoying spiciness.
Remember, you can always add spice, but you can’t take it away. The hottest peppers, such as the Carolina Reaper, cayenne pepper, ghost pepper, habanero or Thai chili pepper, should be used only for those who love spice and are accustomed to it; capsaicin content here is much higher than mild or medium peppers. Sensation-seeking folks will likely go for these capsaicin-packed, mouth-burning peppers. Whichever level of spice you enjoy adding to your food, there is a pepper for everyone — so we can all partake in this healthful trend.