Have you ever wondered why that jalapeno pepper tastes so hot to you while your friend barely winces as you both bite into a hot spicy entrée?
Taste buds are small pockets of chemical receptors on your tongue, which react to chemical stimuli, said Fenton High School anatomy teacher Lisa Stewart. When the pepper hits your tongue, the chemical capcaicin lands on your taste buds, distributed by saliva.
These chemoceptors receive the chemical, interpret the stimulus and send a signal to your cranial nerve. Depending on your tolerance, this could be a spicy kick — or actual pain.
Spicy foods have grown in popularity over the last year, said Fenton Hotel line cook Dave Ripley, particularly in people in their 20s and 30s. “It seems more trendy now — a little bit of heat,” he said. This “heat” has shown up in a lot of different dishes, like their Texas Steak, which is Cajun seasoned, and New Orleans platter, which contains chipotle.
Whenever Ripley cooks a spicy plate, it’s usually crushed red pepper, Cayenne pepper, Sriracha Sauce or Cajun seasoning. To make sure it’s a “palatable” heat, the spice is balanced with a mild flavor like blue cheese.
The hottest thing he’s eaten was an entire habanero pepper, which was in response to a challenge. “It was rough. It’s the seeds that get you more than anything,” he said.
When the hottest flavors are consumed, it actually causes a vague pain response that affects the entire body, according to a Scientific American article, from Oct. 21, 1999.
This chemical stimuli of capcaicin can confuse the brain into an “ambiguous” pain response, and warmth which includes sweating, and feeling flushed everywhere.
The reaction affects nerves in the skin which usually detect the feeling of pinching or cutting, but also chemical stimuli, the stimuli from the spicy food.
Stewart guesses that some people enjoy this pain reaction because of the relief that follows. “It’s not a taste you’re craving, it’s the endorphins being released to relieve the pain that you’re feeling in hot food,” she said.
Public schools still teach the tongue map that segregates different flavors to different areas of the tongue. Stewart said different regions of the tongue are more activated by sweet, salty, sour or bitter flavors. There’s also a fifth flavor commonly associated with MSG in Asian foods. It’s also important to note that most taste sensation actually comes from smell.
Melissa Fromm teaches biology, AP biology and anatomy at Holly High School. She said both genetics, and evolution play a part in how taste works.
“As our ancestors were hunters and gatherers, they would find plants that taste good and ones that don’t,” she said. The back of the tongue detects bitterness, the taste most commonly associated with toxic chemicals. The person, or the body, would automatically reject the poisonous plant, in theory, as humans learned what was safe to eat.
Genetics play a big part in what an individual can taste. She conducts an exercise with her students, where they would taste slips of paper that contain a chemical that can illicit a taste response. The students describe the flavor they are getting to the class.
To some, the same piece of paper tastes either pleasant, or nothing at all, and others taste something bitter or sour, depending on their genes. “It’s really interesting because some kids make hilarious faces,” she said.
“It’s all based on genetics, whatever you inherit,” and what taste sensations you perceive, she said. If the genetics you inherit cause a certain food to taste bitter, you’ll avoid it.
Another component is culture, said University of Michigan-Flint psychology professor Darryl Douglas. Depending on the culture in which someone grew up, or whatever culture they are surrounded with, can also influence their taste preferences.
For the record, Fromm does not enjoy spicy foods. “We use salt and pepper,” she said. Her mother never cooked hot foods because she didn’t like them.