So maybe you love to feel the burn (that's why you're here, right?) But have you ever wondered what makes hot sauce "hot"? How capsaicin works is actually pretty f'ing cool... almost as f'ing cool as you'll be when you use your superior knowledge of science to overcome the most badass of hot peppers.
Capsaicin is the organic compound which gives heat to spicy food. Much like Stacy's mom, Capsaicin has got it going on. It actually generated as an evolutionary means for the capsaicin-creating plant to protect itself against being eaten. Guess Darwin didn't think that one through well enough.
A human tongue is a pretty incredible organ. It plays host to millions of receptors which create our sense of taste. There are five general tastes sensed by these receptors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (or savory); but these aren't the only important receptors on the surface of the tongue which influence how we experience food. The pain receptors located on the tongue (called "VR1 receptors") are primarily focused upon thermoreception (or sensing the intenseness of heat... i.e. they keep us from inhaling things that are too hot to be effectively digested…like that entire chocolate lava cake before it’s had a chance to cool off).The VR1 receptors are also the target of Capsaicin.
The Capsaicin molecule binds to VR1 receptors and (here's the crazy part) signals the brain that your mouth is ON FIRE. Since VR1 receptors are designed to detect heat, the sensation caused by the brain in reaction to VR1 trigger is nearly identical to that of swallowing water at boiling point. In essence: the feeling of a spicy food being "hot" is actually an illusory reaction generated by our VR1 receptors after they have been duped by capsaicin. It's like those crazy new virtual reality goggles...for your tongue. And like virtual reality, it can take you places you never thought you'd go.
So here's how to cool down: capsaicin is not water soluble (which means that that glass of ice water really won't help you cut the heat). It is, however, oil and fat soluble (which is why dairy products help dull the pain of capsaicin overdose). Capsaicin is also soluble with sugar; so pair some sweet wine with that spicy food for a means of protecting yourself against its intensity.
The next time you grab the hot sauce, take a moment to appreciate the absolutely awesome evolutionary accident that you're about to enjoy. And make sure that you have the ice cream handy for after you nom those ghost peppers!
And did you know hot sauce has some pretty cool positive affects on the body?
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