Colloquially we usually talk about spicy taste to describe ‘picky’ foods and dishes, usually associated with cuisines such as Indian or Mexican and their vast catalogs of sauces and chilies or chili peppers. However, spiciness does not belong to the five basic flavors that define food; it has no taste or smell, is the sensation that is generated in our body when reacting to certain molecules.
Harold McGee said to Direct to the Palate that understands taste as the sensation that we have on the tongue when faced with food, while taste is the combined interaction of taste and smell. The five basic flavors (salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami) we detect through multiple receptors spread throughout the language, the taste buds, which send signals to the brain through neurotransmitters when they come into contact with certain components.
The spicy does not taste, smell or burn: it deceives us
We said that we usually link spicy food to gastronomic cultures where the use of chili peppers, chillies or chili peppers is very common, as they are peppers the most widely spread foods around the world and those that bring together a larger catalog of different varieties, with a multitude of applications.
The capsaicin It is responsible for the spiciness of these peppers, a molecule that serves as a defense to the fruit. It was Wilbur L. Scoville who created in 1912 the classification scale that we still use today to measure that spicy strength, using SHUs or Scoville units. The more capsaicin a chili has, the more sugar solutions it takes to mitigate its strength, and therefore the spicier it will be.
But the spicy does not taste of anything, it is a mere reaction of the organism. Capsaicin, like other substances such as isothiocyanates in mustard or wasabi, “trick” our body. We have heat receptors throughout the body, not only on the tongue, which in contact with these molecules send fake heat and pain data to the brain. The trigeminal nerve interprets the data wrongly and makes us believe that we are experiencing painful sensations and a rise in temperature, when none of this occurs.
The body reacts accordingly to protect itself. This is when we can begin to feel hot and flushed, even reaching sweat, cry, or runny nose, because through tears and sweating we would be expelling irritating substances and regulating our body temperature.
Spicy food and its healing effect
All these reactions seem negative, and yet they hook us. Not everyone is able to tolerate or endure very spicy food, but in general humans like to test themselves by, as Arthur Le Caisne says, pure masochism. This roller coaster of bodily reactions has a “high” effect similar to that generated by sports or risky practices, generating endorphins that produce well-being.
Humans have been using capsaicin as Pain treatment for centuries, being the chili one of the first plants domesticated by ancient American civilizations, attributing spiritual powers to them. As we are more exposed to the spicy, the body gets used to it and we become desensitized. Thus, what we initially felt as pain and burning is replaced by a numb feeling on the receivers.
Possible applications of capsaicin are currently being investigated in medicine as an analgesic and as a treatment for diseases such as arthritis, and may even have antitumor properties. What we do know for sure is that, also contrary to popular belief, spicy alone does not harm the stomach. Another thing is what we accompany it with.
Photos | Marco Verch – Unsplash
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