Why does spicy food taste hot?

Focus-Science and Technology - - Q & A - JAMIE TODD, SB

THE AC­TIVE IN­GRE­DI­ENT in chilli pep­pers is cap­saicin, one of sev­eral re­lated com­pounds called cap­sai­ci­noids that bind to vanil­loid re­cep­tors in­side the mouth and on the tongue. Th­ese re­cep­tors de­tect heat and send a sig­nal to the brain about tem­per­a­ture. So it is an accident of na­ture that cap­saicin ac­ti­vates them, trick­ing the brain into re­spond­ing to spicy food as though it were hot. You might think we ought to avoid such foods rather than enjoy them but they may serve many func­tions. Cap­sai­ci­noids are known to in­crease en­ergy and re­duce ap­petite; they also in­crease sali­va­tion, making it eas­ier to eat bland food such as plain rice. An­other the­ory is that the pain of hot chill­ies is a kind of be­nign masochism. The ‘heat’ re­duces other pain by in­duc­ing the release of en­dor­phins, which are the body’s nat­u­ral painkillers, and gives a sense of well­be­ing.

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