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Eating in pain: what is spice?

May 21, 2011

Spice is an ambiguous term, but used in context of ‘spicy-hot’ we all know the meaning. This type of spice sensation is a result of pain, bizarrely, around one third of the world’s population cause themselves pain every day with hot peppers. What makes spicy food hot, or hot food spicy?

Chilli, Photograph by Geof Wilson

People often talk of herbs and spices, and the difference between them is probably not to clear to most people. I think of herbs as green and spices as orange, yet this has no bearing on the spiciness of the ingredient. Most spices are actually not spicy, which means that the term spicy is quite confusing. The correct term is piquant, although I doubt you will ever use or hear the term.

Piquance is present in almost all types of cuisine, but perhaps most prevalent in Asian cooking, where piquant spices are used more widely. Here in Britain we are familiar with the Indian curries and Chinese stir-fries, which make up some of the countries favourite dishes. These contain ingredients which give the dish its piquance. What may surprise you is that piquance is not a flavour, the sensation of eating something piquant is pain. Yet we enjoy this pain?

The pain is caused by chemicals inside the piquant ingredients, such as capsaicin (chilli) and piperine (black pepper). Nerves in the tongue which sense heat detect these chemicals and trick the brain into believing the presence of heat on the tongue. Next time you feel the burn on your tongue when you eat spice, it’s because your brain is telling you “the tongue is on fire!”. However, it’s not and no damage is caused as the chemicals merely bind to the nerve cells. This is also the reason why you can feel the same sensation in other areas of your body. Try rubbing a chilli on a sensitive part of your body, would you say that you can taste with that body part? No, but you can feel the pain caused by the spice.

There is still the question of why a food may be piquant in the first place, many believe it is a deterrent to microbes. Perhaps the bigger question is why would we purposefully chose to eat something that causes us pain? This kind of behaviour is actively selected against in nature, so why would we do that to ourselves? Do we have a strange desire to self harm on a low level?

Day 143 of our food experiment

11:45 Toast x2
14:20 Cheese and tomato chutney sandwich, doritos, sweet chilli rice crackers
19:00 Curry with naan and rice

Notice the pain I’ve caused myself with 2 separate doses of spice!

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