Some Like It Hot

Imaginechina via AP Images

How did the chili pepper become so entrenched in China’s Sichuan and Hunan provinces? Was it the climate? The plant’s biochemistry? Human biology? Or the Sichuanese peoples’ fiery disposition? For Nautilus, writer Andrew Leonard looks for answers in chili science and the ways the pepper may have traveled from the New World to Europe to China. Many studies have tried to understand why people willingly eat something as painful as a chili, and why some cultures embrace this heat more than others. Some theories have to do with risk-taking and “sensation-seeking” activities, which might explain the way China’s Maoist revolutionaries embraced the pepper so fervently.

Eating chili pepper is like riding a roller coaster, he notes. “In both cases, the body senses danger and behavior normally follows which would terminate the stimulus. In both cases, initial discomfort becomes pleasure after a number of exposures.”

Linguistically and anecdotally, the association of “spice” with “excitement” rings true, but proof of Rozin’s theory did not arrive until decades after he formulated his original thesis. The missing link appeared in 2013, when two Penn State researchers, John Hayes and Nadia Byrnes, published “Personality Factors Predict Spicy Food Liking and Intake” in the journal Food Quality and Preference.

Hayes is an associate professor of food science at Penn State who received an NIH grant in 2011 to investigate the genetics of the TRPV1 receptor. Nadia Byrnes was one of his graduate students. In experiments conducted on 97 test subjects, Byrnes found a significant correlation between people who scored high on a “sensation seeking” scale and people who liked the burn. (Examples of questions that determined “sensation seeking” included “I would have enjoyed being one of the first explorers of an unknown land” and “I like a movie where there are a lot of explosions and car chases.”)

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