Science Facts

Why Is Spicy Food So Addictive? – Capsaicin Addiction

Capsaicin Addiction

Have you ever thought about how crazy it is that spicy foods have become so popular? First of all, we have taste buds that detect sweet, salty, sour, and bitter foods. We don’t have spicy taste buds know that spicy flavor is the pain receptors in the mouth. Those are usually triggered hot enough to cause damage to the mouth. There are many crazy people out there who enjoy eating this stuff despite the sweating, nose running, and, well, digestive issues.

Biologically, we’re not supposed to eat spicy food. Many scientists think that pepper plants evolved to be spicy to stop mammals from eating them. Usually, fruit plants want to get eaten, so their seeds are carried far away and deposited with their fertilizer supply. But mammals have strong stomach acid that can digest pepper seeds.

On the other hand, birds have weaker stomach acid, and pepper seeds can safely pass through their digestive tract. So peppers incorporated capsaicin. It is the chemical that simulates burning pain in mammals yet has no effect on birds. This way, the pepper is only eaten by the animals it wants to eat it.

Why is spicy food so addictive?

If we look at Google Trends, we can see that the popularity of spicy food rivals the popularity of sweet food. Capsaicin, a chemical meant to stop us from eating something, is rivaling in popularity with sugar. So what happened? Normally, when plants don’t want to be eaten by certain animals, they make themselves taste disgusting.

The human body is covered in receptors that respond to pain and heat. But the active chemical in spicy foods, capsaicin, can fool these receptors into triggering. Different peppers have different concentrations of capsaicin and can be ranked by their heat units on what is called the Scoville scale.

A study on mice published found that a lethal dose of capsaicin is about 100 milligrams per one kilogram of body weight. For a person weighing 60 kilograms or 130 pounds, this translates to 6 grams of capsaicin.

Brain reaction for spicy food

Our brains perceive something bad tasting like something that we shouldn’t eat because the food can be rotten or dangerous to health. So we learn to stay away from them. But peppers didn’t evolve to taste bad. Instead, they evolved to cause pain to animals they didn’t want to eat. But there’s a loophole in the way our brains work that makes spicy food enjoyable. When bodies experience pain, the brain goes into danger mode. It thinks there’s some hazard that we need to survive.

  • The brain starts by releasing endorphins to help relieve the pain. Then after a while, it gives a dose of dopamine. It is a hormone that causes feel good. So brain releases dopamine as a reward for surviving.

Spicy food tricks the brain to release lots of feel-good hormones to combat the pain. Then the brain creates an association between the good feeling and spicy food, which makes us crave the food that causes pain. The weird thing is that spicy food is both enjoyable and painful. And this is the ultimate key to spicy food, success, and popularity.

Cultural challenge & habit

The fact that spicy food causes pain means that eating spicy food is like a strength. So a person can be seen as strong if they can eat spicy food. And this can create social pressure to like spicy food because the opposite is also true. It’s possible that someone could be seen as weak for not liking this food. So spicy is a cultural juggernaut.

And it’s like this in many places where it’s socially acceptable to like spicy, but then socially alienating not to like spicy food. It’s socially more advantageous to like spicy food. And spicy food is addictive once you start getting used to it. It’s a one-way street towards liking it. More people are joining the population of people who like eating spicy food, while it’s almost unheard of for someone to stop liking it.

Since eating spicy food is a strength for people who want to impress, others will eat spicy foods. This is why spicy food challenges exist. It’s impressive when someone can eat something that would melt a normal person’s mouth, and that has created a positive view about spicy foods, or at least the fascination with them. Maybe this is why people like watching other people eat spicy food.

Capsaicin Addiction Curve
Capsaicin Addiction Curve

Look at Google Trends, and we can see that the overall popularity of spicy food has grown steadily. But if we look at only the searches on YouTube, spicy food dwarfs all other flavors. But this isn’t surprising. Spicy food challenges are extremely popular to watch. Mazzoni recently released a spicy noodle video that got 40 million views, and the show ‘Hot Ones’ is doing great. It’s an interview show themed around eating spicy chicken wings, and each new episode gets a couple of million views.

We like watching other people eat spicy food because it can be funny, impressive, or a mixture of the two. And it’s something that even people who don’t like eating spicy food can enjoy watching because you’re not eating the food yourself. You’re just watching other people eat spicy food. And by the look of the graph, the popularity of spicy food is growing exponentially on YouTube, with no sign of slowing down. Spicy food is going to become more popular than it’s ever been this upcoming year.

Every spicy food challenge is extra exposure and creates a higher chance that a person will want to try this. It has led to popularity every step of the way, from a strange way of being addictive to causing social pressure by associating it with strength. At the point where super-hot peppers are treated like celebrities.

Conclusion

Hot sauce companies like to create sauces that use some of the hottest peppers in the world. But this isn’t just for making the sauce is hot. If hot sauce companies want it, they can make a sauce by using normal peppers for flavor and throwing pure capsaicin into the mix to make it as hot as they want. But the fact is that companies will go out of their way to make sources of peppers like the Carolina Reaper, the Ghost, Pepper Dragon’s Breath, and Pepper X. This shows how important it can be to have a pepper celebrity in your sauce.

Sometimes hot sauce companies will even try to get exclusive deals with pepper growers. Because of the huge marketing advantage of being the only sauce made from this famous pepper. It’s free advertising. If a person looks up a famous hot pepper and finds a hot sauce made from that pepper, they might get curious enough to buy the hot sauce. It’s just like having a celebrity in a movie.

In twenty seventeen, a competitor, Pepper Farm, developed Dragon’s Breath Peppers. It scores two point four million units on the Scoville scale, surpassing the Carolina Reaper. The Carolina Reaper is still commonly known as the hottest pepper in the world.


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Sources:

“Capsaicin.” ChemSpider, Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, UK.
“Capsaicin, Experimental Properties.” PubChem, US National Library of Medicine.
Govindarajan, V. S., Sathyanarayana, M. N. “Capsicum—production, technology, chemistry, and quality. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition.
What Made Chili Peppers So Spicy? By Talk of the Nation.
New Mexico State University – College of Agriculture and Home Economics. “Chile Information – Frequently Asked Questions.”

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