There are people who can breeze through the Samyang challenge without breaking a sweat, literally. Then there are those who can’t stand the spiciness of Bicol Express. So, why do some people have a high tolerance for spicy food while others don’t?
While scientists can’t exactly determine what allows some people to chow down jalapeños like they’re candies, it’s most probably a combination of several factors.
Born to Chili
When we eat something spicy, a sensory receptor called TRPV1 detects the sharp taste. This little protein, which can be found on the surface of our taste buds (among many other parts of our body), opens up in reaction to physical temperature, e.g., heat. So when you feel that burning sensation upon tasting a habanero, that’s the TRPV1 having a reaction to the capsaicin (the compound that gives hot peppers their spiciness) binding to it.
Now, it is said that the gene sequences producing the TRPV1 may vary from person to person. This could mean that a version of this sensory receptor is a bit less reactive than others. Or to put it simply, some fortunate individuals may be born with less sensitivity to extreme spiciness.
Taming the Fire
For some people, eating spicy food is like a skill that can be honed over time or a physical activity that can be endured with practice. This stems from the common myth that if you eat spicy food on a regular basis, your tolerance for them will increase – which is somewhat true.
According to J. Kenji López-Alt, chief culinary consultant of Serious Eats and science-oriented food writer behind The Food Lab, heat tolerance is trainable. He cited the kids who were raised in areas where spicy food is the norm. Since they were exposed to it from an early age, they grow up accustomed to eating anything hot and fiery.
People who are not used to consuming spicy food, however, can learn to adapt to it by repetition. Not so much as to being desensitized, but because as humans, we tend to develop a liking for things we are familiar with. This is a psychological phenomenon known as the mere-exposure effect. So, the more often you add Tabasco to your food, the less sensitive you will become to the burning sensation. Also, you will eventually feel like seeking higher levels of spiciness in order to achieve that original heat intensity.
As mentioned earlier, eating spicy stuff isn’t just about becoming desensitized to the heat. In fact, there are theories suggesting that it’s not that highly spiced food burns less for some people, but instead, it’s that these people actually like the heat.
Try asking any spicy food lover if they can feel the burn, and most certainly, they will tell you that they can and that’s what they love about it. For these sensation-seekers, the burn itself is the real draw. It’s their One Ring, Holy Grail, and Death Star Plan rolled into one. Some psychologists call this phenomenon benign masochism. Pretty much like a roller coaster ride, it’s a harmless way to enjoy something dangerous.
So, do you have a high spice tolerance? You can thank your genes, partially, or your constant diet that includes lots and lots of chili sauce. Or it’s mostly likely that you have learned to enjoy that tongue-burning sensations, you thrill-seeking you!