The Science Behind Your Sriracha Obsession

Photographed by Erin Phraner.
Whether you're a spicy-tuna-roll fiend or you have to call it quits after one bite of salsa, you can't deny the special power of spicy foods. In honor of today (International Hot And Spicy Food Day, didn't you know?), we're figuring out what a fiery dish really does to the body. 

Scarfing down hot foods often causes a person to think this is delicious while simultaneously experiencing pain. That cocktail of sensations stems from the compound capsaicin, which is responsible for the spiciness of chili-pepper-containing foods. On its own, capsaicin is actually odorless, tasteless, and colorless. But, research has shown that it activates the same pain-receptor pathways as the toxins from spider bites. It's no wonder that some of us don't really like it. Still, research suggests that capsaicin can pack a host of health benefits such as cancer-fighting antioxidants.

Because capsaicin activates pain circuits, it also causes a release of feel-good endorphins. This is more on the level of, say, a runner's high than a morphine injection, but it does suggest that we might get an extra boost after eating spicy foods.

Interestingly, there are some links between a love of spicy foods and a propensity for substance abuse. For instance, one study suggests that people who like hot spices react differently to the addiction recovery drug naltrexone

So, why do some of us love spicy foods despite the pain? It's due to a few interconnected factors. First, there's evidence to suggest we might have had an evolutionary incentive to start eating spices. Then there's personality: Some research shows that your tendency towards thrill-seeking behaviors predicts how much you enjoy spicy foods. How you grew up also plays a role — if your childhood was filled with chili-infused dishes, you are probably more likely to enjoy those things later on. Even those of us who grew up with bland dinners can learn to enjoy spicy foods, though: Because we become desensitized to the pain of gobbling down sriracha-drizzled dishes, we're able to tolerate more and more as time goes on. All the more reason to buy this keychain.

To learn more about the chemistry of spicy foods, check out this video from the American Chemical Society.
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