Taste of Science: Spicy Science

As the leaning tower of Jenga pieces fell after a heated battle of, what my friends and I liked to call “Spicy Jenga”, I could only dread the immense pain and suffering about to come my way. What awaited me was the big daddy, the jefe of the chili world — the undisputed hottest chili pepper in the world (in 2013), the Carolina Reaper. As I bit into that pepper I tasted only regret. And for the next 8 hours that’s all I felt too.

Regardless of how awful of an experience that was, I still continue to eat spicy foods to this day, so it made me think:

What’s the science behind spicy things anyway?

Turns out the main agent for “spiciness” is the chemical compound capsaicin. Found in the placental tissue – tissue that surrounds the seeds of a chili pepper – capsaicin is the primary chemical compound that leads to the “burning” sensation of spicy foods.

Chemical formula for capsaicin

Chemical formula for capsaicin

Strangely enough, your brain – quite literally – believes that is on fire! Capsaicin activates a specific receptor on the tongue called TrpV1, which sends pain messages to your brain, causing your body to react accordingly. TrpV1 is also responsible for more than just spicy foods, however. It reacts to:

  • Extreme heat and
  • Caustic acid

That’s why when we eat spicy foods, we tear up, have our noses run, sweat in strange parts of our body, etc. in order to flush out the nonexistent heat. However, to our brain, that heat is 100% REAL, and it tries its best to get us away from potential danger. Ever wonder why spicy and hot foods always seem to taste spicier than normal? They both amplify the pain messages sent to the brain! Now, instead of having just spicy pain, your brain also adds in extra pain from the temperature of the foods you ate! Try eating something spicy at different temperatures (heat one batch and refrigerate the other) and see how much of a difference temperature plays in the overall spiciness of the dish.

This pain-relieving patch is one of the many kinds of capsaicin (or capsicum) medication available over-the-counter.

Aside from being an essential additive in cuisines all over the world, spicy foods play a larger role in our daily lives than we might think. Research has shown that regular chili intake lowered the risk of high blood pressure in a sample of 13,670 adults by almost 40%, even when controlled for diet and weight! Additionally, spices have shown to fight congestion, aid digestion, and relieve muscle and joint pain, as well as play some part in raising our overall metabolism. In fact, capsaicin is used often in the medical field as an analgesic, or pain reliever, due to its ability to prevent the production of Substance P – Substance P being the primary neurotransmitter responsible for pain from capsaicin.

The most fascinating aspect of capsaicin is that, the more capsaicin you introduce into your body, the less and less you will feel (you probably noticed how spicy foods are when you first eat them when compared to your last bite). Thus, research has shown that in high concentrations (~8%), a 60 minute application of a capsaicin patch effectively provides pain relief for months on end. Widespread use is slow-going; however, certain prescriptions are available for cancer patients and other people with chronic pain to provide some relief to them.

The benefits of capsaicin are still being researched, but even now people are hopeful in its potential in advancing our health and the field of medicine. Though, until more research is done, the most we can do is appreciate capsaicin for how much it spices our lives up!


References:

Burks TF, Buck SH, Miller MS. 1985 June. Mechanisms of depletion of substance P by capsaicin. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2581820

Byrnes, N., Hayes, J. 2013 April. Personality factors predict spicy food liking and intake. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0950329312001917

Anand, P., Bley, K. 2011 August. Topical capsaicin for pain management: therapeutic potential and mechanisms of action of the new high-concentration capsaicin 8% patch. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/bja/article/107/4/490/228083

Sharma, S., Vij, A., Sharma, M. 2013 November. Mechanisms and clinical uses of capsaicin Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0014299913008200

Tékus, V., Horváth A., Hajna, Z. 2016 June. Noxious heat threshold temperature and pronociceptive effects of allyl isothiocyanate (mustard oil) in TRPV1 or TRPA1 gene-deleted mice. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0024320516302508

Miroslav, M. 2010 August. High-concentration capsaicin for the treatment of post-herpetic neuralgia and other types of peripheral neuropathic pain. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1754320710705290

Shi, Z., Riley, M., Brown, A., Page, A. Chilli intake is inversely associated with hypertension among adults. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2405457717304965

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About Noah Chong

Noah is an undergraduate student at Georgia Tech looking to change the world one step at a time. He loves to hike, stargaze and build computers and spends his spare time dancing, working out and gaming.