Published on Wednesday, 11 March 2015 00:00
This is what every Singaporean needs to know since most of us love inflicting pain on our tongues with our addiction to all kinds of spicy food. And besides, it doesn't hurt to learn something once in awhile.
To properly answer the question, we first have to take a look at capsaicin, the heat-inducing chemical in peppers. Capsaicin is the sole culprit of all the heat found in peppers, or other spicy products. When you bite into a hot pepper, or a spicy dish, capsaicin is released from the membranes of the peppers, clips to the neurotransmitters that regulate temperature in your mouth, and screams out to those neurons that things are heating up. The brain registers the signal and reacts just as it would in the case of a real fire, by triggering your body's fight-or-flight response. This is why when you eat something too spicy, your heart starts to race and beads of sweat appear on your face, because of the endorphins that come flooding in. Those endorphins put up a barrier to protect the tongue from the “fire” and it causes the mouth to go temporarily numb.
But the endorphins' numbing powers only last for so long before the heat and self-inflicted pain comes creeping back, leaving you blinking away the tears. Fortunately, this effect wears off in due time, but just how much time depends on the pepper's capsaicin levels.
The Scoville scale is used to measure the capsaicin levels in every pepper from noobish capsicums to the insanely scorching ghost peppers. The more Scoville Heat Units a pepper has, the higher the heat intensity (and the longer you’ll be in pain). The hottest pepper in the world is the Carolina Reaper which measures around 2,200,000 Scoville units, with our favorite Chilli Padi only coming up to 225,000 units. The Carolina Reaper has reportedly landed consumers in the hospital after they threw up or fainted or both.
The Carolina Reaper will probably burn another hole through you
So if you and your thrill-seeking friends are up for trying the hottest pepper in the world, be warned that you might burn for the next 24 hours. However, despite the excruciating agony brought on by capsaicin's heat, the tongue's exposure to capsaicin does not result in tissue damage to your taste buds. This is because taste and the heat are two different sensations and, as such, are interpreted by two different types of receptors (polymodal nociceptors for heat and pain, caliculus gustatorius for taste). Capsaicin only triggers the heat-sensing receptors—so, even though your entire tongue may feel numb, your taste buds in fact remain unaffected.
So why then are some people able to take spicier foods than others without flinching? The secret is simply tolerance. You can train your tolerance to spice by integrating more capsaicin into your diet in small doses. Your pain treshold plays a part too. If you are very susceptible to pain, like a little pinch will leave you bawling your eyes out, then you will probably never be a very good pepper eater. However, if you can get pierced everywhere without blinking an eye, you can train to take on spicier foods.
If something gets too hot for you to handle, a glass of milk or a pint of beer will help in putting out the flames on your tongue. Studies show that capsaicin dissolves in the presence of fat, alcohol, and casein (a protein found in dairy). Water DOES NOT help at all, as it just spreads the capsaicin around and will make it worse.
So don't worry about destroying your tastebuds with spicy food. The only way for your tastebuds to be destroyed is if you actually set fire to your tongue. Slather on the hot sauce, all will be fine.
Share this article with your friends to enlighten them about spice.