chili peppers

About a third of the world counterintuitively consumes burning hot peppers daily. But what is it about setting one’s mouth on fire that people can’t get enough of?  In this article, we will explore the question, “Are chili peppers addictive?”

Jalapeño peppers were sent into space in 1982.
In 1982, jalapeño became the first pepper to be sent into space.

What Is Spicy?

We often describe food as tasting “spicy.” This is where the confusion begins. Spicy isn’t a flavor but rather a sensation. If you were to put a chili pepper in your mouth, the heat would activate nociceptors, which are sensory neurons that detect pain. The specific nociceptor responsible for making your hot sauce so scorchingly exciting is called Transient Receptor Potential Cation Channel Vanilloid Subfamily Member 1 … or TRPV1.

Nociceptors and Pain

When your brain senses noxious heat in your mouth it activates TRPV1. Your brain then reacts to the heat as if your mouth were literally on fire and produces a burning sensation. In other words, eating spicy food tricks your brain into thinking that your mouth is in danger and your body reacts in turn with a rush of stress hormones. Your heartbeat speeds up, you start sweating, your eyes tear up, your nose runs, and your face turns red. But where is this heat coming from in the first place? The answer is capsaicin.

Ghost Peppers
Whether leveraged as hand grenades for the Indian military or made into hot sauce, ghost peppers have amassed a global fan base due to their intimidating heat.

All Roads Lead Back to Capsaicin

Found in the white flesh surrounding chili pepper seeds, capsaicin is a molecule that binds to TRPV1 receptors in your mouth. Scientists have isolated this intriguing chemical for a variety of uses including pepper spray and as a topical pain killer due to its numbing effects on the skin. When you put some fiery hot sauce on your tacos, however, capsaicin stimulates the danger signal which neurotransmitters then carry to the brain. The result? That depends on the chili peppers’ Scoville rating.

What Is the Scoville Heat Scale?

In 1912, pharmacologist William Scoville measured capsaicin levels in individual chili peppers to determine their spiciness. Sweet peppers, for instance, have a Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) of five. Habanero peppers, on the other hand, have a SHU of 350,000.

Scoville Heat Units (SHU)Chili Pepper Examples
1,500,000–3,000,000+Pepper X, Apollo Pepper, Carolina Reaper, Dragon’s Breath
750,000–1,500,000Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, Naga Viper, Infinity Chili, Ghost Pepper
350,000–750,000Red Savina Habanero
100,000–350,000Habanero, Scotch Bonnet, Peruvian White Habanero, Guyana Wiri Wiri
50,000–100,000Byadgi, Thai, Malagueta
25,000–50,000Guntur, Cayenne
10,000–25,000Serrano, Aleppo, Cheongyang
2,500–10,000Espelette, Jalapeño
1,000–2,500Anaheim, Poblano
100–1,000Banana Pepper, Cubanelle
0–100Bell Pepper, Pimento

At present, the chili pepper with the highest SHU rating is Pepper X. At over 3,000,000 SHUs, eating a whole Pepper X would likely send a person into anaphylactic shock possibly resulting in death. Just as people shouldn’t try to ingest military-grade pepper spray, leaving the heat of Pepper X to the imagination is the best course of action.

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Water and Capsaicin Don’t Mix

Like oil, capsaicin does not dissolve in water and does more harm than good when trying to alleviate the pain of a hot pepper. Instead of soothing your skin, water spreads the capsaicin throughout your mouth. On a molecular level, capsaicin has a long hydrocarbon tail, which is a combination of hydrogen and carbon. Other non-water-soluble substances such as candle wax and gasoline are also derived from hydrocarbons.

Dairy products sooth the scorching flame because they contain molecules that remove and dissolve capsaicin from your TRPV1 receptors. So, the next time you experience the fiery pain of a hot pepper, reach for a glass of milk or a bowl of ice cream instead.

This grocery store in Texas uses the Scoville Heat Scale to help their customers select chili peppers.
This grocery store in Texas uses the Scoville Heat Scale to help their customers select chili peppers.

The Truth About Hot Peppers: Are They Addictive?

Back to our original question, are chili peppers addictive? The answer, according to science, is a firm “not exactly.” There are several factors that affect each individual’s response to hot peppers including social influences, personality, and how one’s body responds physiologically.  For instance, if you weren’t exposed to capsaicin from a young age, like Mexican or Indian children who are introduced to spice as early as age one, your system will be less desensitized to its affects. And then there are the sensation seekers.

Culinary Masochism

While chili peppers contain no addictive properties, the experience of heat and pain triggers a release of pleasant endorphins. This experience is similar to a runner’s high or roller coaster rides that adrenaline junkies crave. So, you might say that capsaicin makes people feel “alive”.

The term “benign masochism” also explains people’s affection for the pain of a chili pepper. Benign masochism is a term coined by psychology professor, Paul Rozin, PhD. He uses it to describe people that enjoy painful activities that are ultimately safe, like experimenting with hot sauce or watching sad movies.

Benign masochists that become “addicted” to culinary heat develop an association between pleasure and hot foods. So, while there is no true chemical addiction, there is a clear pattern linking pleasure, safe pain, and hot peppers.

Trinidad Scorpion Pepper, named for its resemblance to a scorpion’s stinger.

I Triple Dog Dare You

The next time someone dares you to try a hot sauce, go for it! The mind trickery of capsaicin is an impressive feat of deception within our neurosensory world. Ultimately, however, experimenting with chili peppers is a safe experience if common sense is also on the table.  How far are you willing to go on the Scoville Scale? Habanero-level pain or perhaps a jolt of Infinity pepper? Let us know in the comment section!

Next Up: What Is Ratatouille? »

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Comments

  1. Larry M.

    Fascinating! Enjoyed learning the science behind the pain. Pepper X would be the end of me.

  2. Chris David

    Really nice post. Thanks for sharing.

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