The only curry sauce I can eat is from Macdonalds. No exaggeration there when I say I have ZERO tolerance for spice. But don’t get me wrong; I do like spicy food, I just can’t eat them (and that’s the problem). I would love to eat that bowl of tom yam without gulping down 2 litres of water, please!
So here’s the burning question: why? My friends are all in tune with each other that i’ve got not enough practice, which i clearly disagree on. Thus, I decided to take research into my own hands, and put an end to this argument once and for all.
Spice tolerance, is it nature or nurture? Turns out, as with most things, it’s a bit of both.
Spicy is a sensation, not a taste
To really know how spice tolerance works, you first have to understand taste perception. We taste flavours through three components: taste, olfactory sense, and trigeminal sense.
Taste: our body can sense sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami, and possibly fattiness.
Olfactory sense (smell): It is actually your nose that allows you to tell the difference between eating an apple and a orange.
Finally, trigeminal senses: This is what manages spice sensation, and it does so through detecting pain and irritation through nerve endings. If you can sense a fish bone in your food and know to spit it out, you have your trigeminal senses to thank!
You can “train” spice tolerance if you start young
So my friends are not wrong. You can indeed “train” your spice tolerance (but only when you’re young)!
Scientists discovered that exposing children to spicy food at a young age can desensitize nerve endings. This is why people from certain countries or cultures can take spiciness much better than others — they start young. Children in Mexico actually snack on jalapeno-laced lollipops!
But what if you only start eating spicy food when you’re older?
If you like spicy, you like pain (kind of)
You can enjoy eating spicy food even if you start eating them as an adult, but just not everybody does. Turns out, it has something to do with your personality!
The compound in spicy food triggers receptors in pain neurons. Researchers Nadia Byrnes and John Hayes from Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences found evidence that the liking for spiciness is not just a case of better tolerance through repeated exposure, but rather a preference shift towards oral burn. Basically, some people simply like the feeling of an oral burn more than other people.
Researchers at Penn State University investigated the relationship between personality traits and liking for spicy food also found that “sensation seekers” — people who enjoyed the thrills of roller coasters, gambling, and meeting new people, were generally more in favour of spicy dishes.
And people can be addicted to it.
That’s right. When you eat chilies, it releases endorphins similar to a runner’s high. You start to miss a meal that doesn’t have that spice.