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Can Spicy Food Really Burn Out Taste Buds?


Can Spicy Food Really Burn Out Taste Buds? Andy Baker/CSA-Images/Getty Images
Can Spicy Food Really Burn Out Taste Buds? Andy Baker/CSA-Images/Getty Images

Spiciness is a very personal thing. Some like their food hot. Some like it even hotter. And some won't start to chow down until they've slopped on the Sriracha, piled on the jalapenos and laid on enough horseradish to literally bring tears to their eyes.

Which practically begs the question: What's wrong with those people?

Do these folks actually enjoy watering eyes, a searing tongue and a runny nose at the dinner table?

Are they setting themselves up for everything else to taste extra bland? Are they burning out their taste buds?

Robin Dando studies exactly these types of questions. Dando, an assistant professor in the department of food science at Cornell, has spent his still-young career studying how our bodies interact with the food we consume.

And when it comes to spicy foods and our bodies ... that's a tricky one.

What's Going On

"I think there's an interest in spicy food. It seems a little exotic, I suppose, maybe because not that many years ago people didn't eat a lot of spicy foods in this country," says Dando. "You don't have to go back too far to find that.

"It is an unusual sensation, I guess, more so than something that's sweet or salty."

When you put a spicy food in your mouth — whether it's pepper, a jalapeno or whatever's in that five-alarm chili you just ordered — you're often ingesting a chemical compound found in peppers called capsaicin (cap-SAY-a-sin). Capsaicin interacts with receptors in your mouth, which immediately send a signal to your brain. The signal goes something like this:

FIRE! FIRE! HOT, HOT, HOT, HOT, HOT! FIIIIIIIRRRRRRRE!

It's not some joke that your mouth is playing on your brain. The receptors in your mouth react to the capsaicin the same way it would if there were an actual fire on your tongue. That's why the brain, which takes these things quite literally, sets off the body's sprinkler system. Your heart starts racing, firing up that "fight-or-flight" mechanism. Your blood rushes to the skin's surface to cool things down. You start to salivate. Your nose may start to run.

For some people, this is considered fun. It's a culinary experience. They can't get enough of it.

Fire-eaters Rejoice

For those who prefer more subtle tastes and dry eyes, the whole idea of too-spicy foods may be difficult to comprehend. But to many spicy food lovers, the hotter the better.

Although it may seem like a Fifty Shades of Red kind of thing, Dando says that people who eat extremely spicy foods often do it because they have to in order to get the taste they crave. That's because spicy food connoisseurs probably build up a tolerance to super spiciness.

"There's some pretty strong evidence that suggests that you can. We would call it 'desensitization,'" Dando says. "Simply from being exposed to something constantly, you start to build up a tolerance to it."

Physically speaking, desensitization can act at the nerve, at the receptor or in the brain, Dando explains. Essentially, if you're stimulating a nerve a lot, it can become less responsive. With capsaicin in particular, one of the neurotransmitters responsible for signaling pain to the brain can become depleted easily. Likewise, a cell can reprogram to express fewer of its receptors if they're always in use.  Finally, the brain can basically turn down the volume of a signal in the short term. It's like how when you get in the cold water at the beach, it's intensely cold, but in a minute or so it doesn't feel so frigid.  

Dando offers an example of desensitization in the real world. Ithaca, New York, where Cornell is, has a lot of Thai restaurants, and many offer a "spiciness" scale from, say, 1-5. Most people find their level and stick with it.

But the restaurant's regular scale is for people who visit or live in Ithaca. Some restaurants also offer a "Thai Scale," which is a lot hotter than your normal upstate New York scale. It's for people who know spice, have been exposed to it a lot and can handle it.

"I've been to Thailand and tried really spicy Thai food," Dando says. "Honestly, it's eye-opening, to say the least."

If you've ever been a spicy food fanatic, you may have wondered what year after year of all that fiery goodness may be doing to your taste buds. For sure, spicy foods can get to some people: They've been associated with acid reflux and heartburn.

But as far as your mouth and those precious taste buds go, don't worry.

"People seem to talk about, 'Spicy food destroys your taste buds.' That's not really true," Dando says. "It's not physically damaging the tissues. It's just kind of simulating the conditions where they would get damaged."

So spice it up, brave foodies. And keep a glass of whole milk or a side of bread or rice handy, just in case.

Not brave enough to try? You can just sit back and see how the folks at HowStuffWorks fared one afternoon in their hot sauce face-off.



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