How Your Taste Buds React to Spicy Food

We’ve all seen that guy—the one mopping up his forehead over a basket of hot wings or taking the chef to task over a yawn-worthy Pad Thai that boasted a four-chili-pepper rating on the menu. (And by “seen,” we mean “been.” We’ve been that guy.)

Once the sweat and tears have subsided and we’ve regained our composure, we inevitably find ourselves wondering why exactly we insist on enduring that level of discomfort in the name of a spicy dish—and, more importantly, whether we’re doing irreversible damage in the process.

With San Diego Restaurant Week just a few weeks away, we’re here to clear up the misconceptions so you can clear your palate for eight days of the city’s best in spicy fare—or whichever of the 180-plus gastronomic experiences in which you decide to indulge.

‘Spicy’ Isn’t Exactly a Flavor

Sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami (aka, savory)—these are the five basic tastes recognized by our taste receptors. Notice how spicy isn’t one of them? That’s because it isn’t so much a taste as it is a pain signal.

Let’s back up a second. In order to understand why our brains interpret spice as pain, it’s important to first understand, on a basic level, how the human tongue works. The tongue has millions of microscopic receptors that allow us to taste flavor, as well as a whole other set of receptors that enable us to feel pain—those are called VR1 receptors. When a piece of spicy food hits your tongue, it sends a signal to your brain, which interprets it as something physically hot and, in turn, cues the burning sensation we all know too well.

Capsaicin is the Culprit

Capsaicin is a chemical found in chili peppers and the active ingredient that makes spicy food, well, spicy. It’s also the thing that tricks your taste buds into thinking there is something actually hot in your mouth—and the trigger for the fire alarm set off by your brain. And if you’ve ever forgotten to put on a pair of kitchen gloves before chopping up a hot pepper—or worse, forgotten you chopped up a hot pepper and then accidentally rubbed your eyes—capsaicin is the one to blame for that burning sensation, too.

Myth: Spicy Food Destroys Taste Buds

While intensely spicy food can have some undesirable effects on parts of the body we won’t mention here, the good news is, it doesn’t actually destroy your taste buds—it just numbs them. The common misconception that too much spicy food can lead to the inability to taste is a myth that’s been debunked by seasoned scientists and amateur foodies alike. The loss of sensation might make you think your taste buds are dying, but it’s only a temporary effect. You should be back to normal and ready for your next vindaloo within 24 hours.

How to Beat the Heat

If the burning sensation we feel from eating spicy food is actually our brain interpreting it as something extremely hot in temperature, then cold water should naturally be the solution, right?

Unfortunately, no. Water doesn’t really help at all in this instance and, in fact, can make things worse. Capsaicin is insoluble in water, which means it does nothing but actually spread the sensation further around your mouth when you take a sip. While it may be tempting to reach for that glass of ice water on the table, you’ll fare much better with a dairy product like milk or sour cream, or a sugary drink like juice or even wine, as sugar blocks capsaicin from attaching to your pain receptors.

What Have We Learned?

Now that we’ve gotten to the bottom of why exactly spicy food makes us feel as if we may spontaneously combust, let’s take a moment to investigate why we do this to ourselves in the first place. For starters, research has shown that spicy food can boost your metabolism and may even lead to a slightly longer life. But gratuitous statistics aside, let’s be real—we do it because as painful as it may be, the pleasure of consuming the vibrant, world-class cuisine we are lucky to enjoy as San Diegans far outweighs the temporary pain of our mind literally playing tricks on us.

So, eat more spicy food, wash it down with a glass of wine and sweat it out with us during #SDRW2018.

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