I’ve never fully understood people who tell me that they can’t “handle” spicy foods. Sure, like others, more than once I’ve bitten off more than I should have, and enjoyed delicious spiciness all the while with tears pouring down my face. So why do some people hate hot sauce, chili peppers, and other spicy foods while others can’t get enough?
The answer is based in science, but not genetics, as many people think. It turns out that there is no such thing as a spice-loving gene, and no one is born loving hot sauce. Sure, being exposed to spicy foods at earlier ages can encourage familiarity and even cravings from memories of meals past.
According to science, affinity for spicy foods is learned, a result of repeated exposure to peppers—specifically to capsaicin, the compound that makes chili peppers taste hot and makes your mouth burn. This process of learning to love heat is what Dr. Paul Rozin, professor in clinical psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, who examined the psychology of food tastes, called “benign masochism.” People who eat a lot of spicy food don’t have numbed or injured taste receptors. They are not insensitive to the irritation that extreme spice produces. They actually come to like the same burning sensation that deters many animals and humans that dislike heat. Eating spices that are intense creates a burst of endorphins, the neurotransmitters of pleasure.
Dr. Rozin termed this a hedonic shift, meaning that folks who like the burning sensation of hot foods actually form stronger associations between pain and pleasure. It hurts so good.