The idea of purposefully putting something dangerous into your body would seem ill advised at best, and mad at worst. Humans spend no shortage of energy ensuring our bodies–the ? wonderlands? that they are–remain unpolluted by substances that will sully them. A good amount of the time, those substances are obviously bad. Spoilt milk, undercooked chicken, rat poison. Sometimes they’re less obvious, or at the edge of preference. Raw eggs, beef tartare, mercury laden fish. And often their tolerability is less a matter of actual danger, and more one of taste (occasionally literally). For some non-morals inspired vegetarians, meat is simply unpleasant to consume. The same can be said for otherwise permissive food lovers who abstain from sushi generally, oysters specifically, pungent cheese or extremely spicy foods. 

It is this last subset of dangerous-seeming food items–the fiery pepper–that we take as our focus here.

The danger associated with spicy food, the burning sensation it elicits, is caused by the presence of capsaicin, produced in the plant genus Capsicum, or simply chili peppers. The tissue it contacts produces the sensation of physical burning. If consumed, the nose runs. The eyes water. The skin tingles and sometimes, pending the level of the perturbing heat, worse… but we are in polite company so we’ll forgo the details, yes? Yes.

It’s understandable that a percentage of the population regards said hot happenings as either unfun or wildly daft. They may likewise regard those who purposefully ignore, and hey! willingly trigger! a response meant to warn of harm, as masochistic. Climb a mountain, sure. Jump out of a plane (with a parachute), yeah. But must every meal also be a thrill? 

The short answer is “no, it mustn’t” – the long answer, which I am known to traffic in and much more inclined to give, is “no, but for some, it might as well be.” To explain how and why those that do so use the chili pepper, let us begin with a brief history, and consideration as to why it has remained a venerable foodstuff, ate worldwide for some 500 years (and at all for much, much longer), despite the fact that when deposited gut-wise, it makes us all need to blow our noses and ugly cry.


“Chili peppers” and “pepper” from peppercorns are unrelated. When Columbus ““discovered”” the “”“New World””” in 1492–calling stuff whatever he wanted because that’s how colonialists do–he named the food he encountered “pepper” for its pungent taste similar to that of black peppers with which he was familiar (and which, conveniently, were highly sought after). “Chili” comes from the Nahuatl word for the plant which produces the spice (chīlli). It came into wide use a hundred or so years later, when it was adopted and exported by the conquistadors. 

The earliest known usage of chili as a food item dates six thousand some years ago around Ecuador, but Christopher Columbus and, eventually, the global spice trade, spread the fruit from its South American home to far flung corners of the previously unspiced world. We have Columbus to “”””thank”””” for (‘credit with’ is perhaps more suitable here) the heat associated with certain segments of Indian, African and Chinese cuisine. As well as for the more mild Hungarian paprika, Italian peperoncino, and many other dishes and chilis found throughout the world.

This raises a question, though: if it hasn’t always been so, how did certain locales come to their iconically spicy cuisine? Why Thailand, India, Sichuan and the American Southwest, but not England, Poland, Russia or Japan? While the initial spread of the chili across the globe was economic, its persistence in specific regions was biologic. 

Capsaicin is, in fact, deadly… to bacteria. The aspects of the chili which signal “HEY THIS IS DANGEROUS” to humans also make an it antimicrobial. Chilis can keep certain perishable foods, having perhaps taken some steps towards the state of ~having perished~, from causing actual harm upon ingestion – the trade off being a more superficial harm: tingly lips, sweaty scalp, hiccups. 

In 1998 Jennifer Billing and Paul W. Sherman, in the Quarterly Review of Biology, published a paper describing how regions with a climate that hastens meat spoilage are those with the most long standing use of spice, including chilis. Before the existence of refrigeration, spots with no capability for long term food preservation could rely on spices to thwart foodborne illness. The authors write:

As mean annual temperatures (an indicator of relative spoilage rates of unrefrigerated foods) increased, the proportion of recipes containing spices, number of spices per recipe, total number of spices used, and use of the most potent antibacterial spices all increased, both within and among countries. Likewise, the estimated fraction of bacterial species inhibited per recipe in each country was positively correlated with annual temperature.[1]

Billing and Sherman point to garlic, onion and capsicums as among the most prevalent, and “powerful antibacterials” as well as “anise, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, ginger, lemongrass and turmeric.” 

ASIDE: The truism about spicy foods producing enough sweat to reduce one’s overall body temperature, and thus being desirable in hot climates, has been challenged. The percentage of the population which sweats enough upon the consumption of pepper filled foods to counteract oppressive environmental heat is small. And regardless as Billing and Sherman put it: “sweating is a metabolically expensive way to cool off”. It is much more efficient to go for swim, find shade, or buy one of those little fans that’s attached to a spray bottle. You know what I’m talking about, right? Those things are rad. 

Lets not chill out yet, though, as we’ve not fully confronted the chili matter at hand. Certain geographic locations made use of chilis and other spices as antimicrobials before refrigeration but also yes, hello, this is 2018 calling and those places HAVE REFRIGERATION NOW? Why have the chili et al remained? 

For one, it may not be so cut and dry that refrigeration alone eliminates foodborne illness. 

Billing and Sherman looked comparatively at Japan and South Korea, two countries with similar climates and access to similar ingredients, but with differing culinary traditions. They note that foodborne illness is much more common in Japan–which makes limited use of spice–than it is in South Korea–home to some rather piquant dishes like jjambbong, buldak and, depending upon where you are, even :fire emoji: kimchi. Seoul has refrigerators, but their use of spice would seem to go above and beyond, protecting the populace from bacterial baddies.

But also – after generations of use, some region’s spice predilection can become, simply, tradition. As such, it will impact the preferences, and identities, of its residents. A region with spicy food may continue to produce, and consume, spicy food for the reason that the region is a producer and consumer of spicy food. It is, as they say, how it’s always been done. This being the case, a familiarity with, tolerance for or enjoyment of spicy dishes can become inseparable from one’s identity. Or, as tends to be the case with the food-related norms of our childhood, some sense of home, or comfort may be found in them. They may be viewed as, simply, normal. 

Usefulness as an antimicrobial may have started, and for a good while sustained, the use of capsaicin producing plants in certain regions of the world, but it is a complex stew involving also habit, preference, expectation, tradition and identity which has caused that use to persevere.


Now we reach the spiciest mystery: we have seen the chili spread to, and its persistence in, certain regions. We can excuse its continued consumption in these locales–in light of its temporary, deleterious effects–with a hand wavey mention of “habit” or “tradition”. But how do we explain its enjoyment by people who can claim no ancestral right to burninated mouthparts?

This is a tough question. Why does anyone enjoy anything? We’re unequipped to know objectively our own inclinations, let alone those of others, and so to claim we might arrive at any confident conclusion in this matter would be a feverish delusion. Feverishness, however, being a theme in this present screed, we’ll attempt regardless. 

*cracks knuckles; sprinkles cayenne dust on keyboard*

First, I believe it pertinent to acknowledge the tenor taken concerning hot heads: such an appetite is seemingly thought, much like vegetarianism and veganism, to be situated over and above preference, leaking into (or perhaps from?) some aspect of who that person *is*.

Why might that be? Perhaps because one is not seen as “preferring” capsaicin soaked foods, but as being able to “withstand” them. The enjoyment is arrived at first through mettle, not fondness. One must possess a fortitude prior to deciding vindaloo, or hot chicken, is something they actually enjoy. 

It is true that one may build up a tolerance to capsaicin. Upon contact with the tongue, heat-sensing receptors tell your body something bad is going town in mouth town. Thinking you could literally be burning, those receptors–though several chain reactions–cause you to salivate, and sweat, and rush blood to your face. They also cause the release of endorphins, a natural pain killer and a chemical which can causes light euphoria (see also: runners’ high). 

But over time and repeated exposure your tongue will restrict those receptors, and stop them from freaking so far out (flipping so hard their lid; panicking quite so much (at the (spice) disco)). Your tongue does this as it “learns” the effects of capsaicin aren’t so mortal. Decreased release of endorphins–another side effect of continued use, and built tolerance–is also, incidentally, why people who like spicy food may search for ever spicier dishes, chasing the high of their first intense experience. Spicy foods is can be very addictive. 

But while desensitization is a factor in enjoyment, it is not the only – nor it is the strongest – determinant of who loves spicy food. For one, its effective only to a point. There are chilis which are so hot, ones mouth will get completely rekt no matter its expertness. Echoing our above argument about tradition, and identity, Ludy and Mates, in a 2011 paper for Appetite, claim that prior experience–mere exposure–”rather than physiological adaptation or personality differences […] best predict preference for spicy foods.”

Can, or should, this fact stop us from asking after any personality norms shared between people who hold that preference, based arguably on exposure? No. It can’t. And no. It should and will not.

Do pepper freaks want to seem tough? Do they have something to prove? Do they enjoy a challenge? Sure. Why not? There is an amount of machismo one may attain after ingesting the prohibitively spicy. This is a factor seized upon by the packaging of many challenging condiments: warning of danger, death, and pain such that the consumer may claim they have endured some trail, and in extreme cases, evaded death. This is especially true of hot sauces found at truck stops or outdoor and sporting goods stores. Why anyone would want to eat something called “AZZ BLAZZTER”, decorated with a donkey holding a flamethrower, is beyond me, but to each his own <3

Nadia K. Byrnes and John E. Hayes in 2015 found that the personality trait most closely associated with the willing, regular and enjoyed consumption of capsaicin isn’t the desire for renown or the search for a risk to confront … but rather “sensation seeking.” They describe sensation seeking as “characterized by the need for varied, complex, and novel sensations, and the willingness to seek out these experiences regardless [emphasis mine] of possible associated physical and social risks.”[2] The Sensation Seeker is motivated intrinsically–by their own desires and in the pursuit of their own satisfactions–not extrinsically–by the social factors related spicy food, and how scarfing it may make them appear to others. The Spicy Lover is, if not motivated by familiarity or tradition (and often, I would guess, even if they are), in pursuit of a phenomenological thrillride.

It is here we can transition to, and conclude with, hot sauces. In the way the love of spicy food could be seen as some intrinsic facet of one’s personality, it is often the case that certain meals are spicy. It is part of their “personality”, if we may be so bold as to assign some human qualities to inanimate assemblages of food items. The role of hot sauce is to open the possibility of spiciness to all meals. 

A common complaint here is: BUT NOW YOU CAN’T TASTE THE FOOD. I would, first, suggest those so concerned simply mind their business when it comes to others’ decisions about what they put in their mouths. But if we would like to meet a culinary gripe on its own culinary territory (and not turn it into a ethical argument), I will admit there is a danger in the application of hot sauce. Hot sauces have a bad wrap for the loud, inescapable pungency of the worst of their lot, or the most emphatic of their devotees. Not knowing any better, we may consider hot sauces the Guy Fieri of condiments, as we may consider Guy himself the hot sauce of people.

But like the spices upon which they are based, hot sauces are, at their best and even most extreme, a flavor enhancer… not a flavor obliterator. Unless you’d rather not taste the thing you’re about to gum in your maw, in which case: get nuts… or i guess… get peppers… and then get milk.

Hot sauces are a tool. Like any tool, they can be used in unexpected, and unintended ways. These uses may result in new avenues of experience and sensation, or in regret and displeasure. But like the Scoville scale, which is used to measure spiciness, sensation and displeasure are subjective. Hot sauces often challenge the idea of taste, as a cultural operation, and taste, as a physical sensation. Luckily, both of these things exist to be challenged.

With the endless variety of chilis, culinary traditions which have adopted them, and concoctions which make use of them, we have no shortage of tools with which to mount such a challenge. 


[1] https://www.jstor.org/stable/3036683

[2] https://etda.libraries.psu.edu/catalog/23491

This essay, on spicy foods and hot sauce, was written for only three lucky Project For Awesome 2017 supporters, who received a printout along with one of my favorite hot sauces (yes, one of them was Secret Aardvark!)