If you’re like me, you eat spicy food like there’s no tomorrow. Hot sauce that registers 350,000 Scoville units? Bring it on. Sriracha on a Mediterranean salad? Not weird at all. Level 5 spicy at the authentic Thai place? No sweat. (OK, maybe a little sweat). But if you’re really like me, you’ve also wondered whether you’re doing legit damage to your taste buds by eating this way.
Worried that I was going to end up like my friend’s dad, who has to cover everything he eats with black pepper just to taste it, or like my grandfather, who can’t taste anything at all, I decided to find out whether there’s really any harm in treating your mouth with total reckless abandon two to three times a day for years on end. I prayed that the answer would be no, since a yes would mean, for one, that I would probably have to get rid of the dozen or so bottles of hot sauce that I keep stocked in my apartment.
Spicy food is good for you; this much we know. We’ve been hearing about its health benefits for years. One groundbreaking 2015 study found that people who ate spicy foods six to seven days a week had a 14-percent higher chance of having a longer life (and another article in 2017 reported similar results). However, that 2015 study, which was done predominantly in China, raised other questions for me, like whether it’s advisable for me, a white, American Jew who was raised on bagels, pizza, and turkey sandwiches, to eat spicy food at this frequency. And if it is, how spicy is too spicy? Are Americans different than other cultures in terms of biology and tolerance?
We have certainly begun the road to acclimation; an American obsession with spicy food has been on the rise in the past few decades—and especially in the past few years—which has naturally meant an intermingling with the food of other cultures. In his excellent book, The Mission Chinese Cookbook, Danny Bowien wrote that on his visit to China, he found that dishes of la zi ji (Szechuan chicken wings) had a ratio of 95 percent chiles to 5 percent chicken. “The entire time I was in Sichuan,” he wrote, “I danced a thin line between being elated and being sick.” When he adapted that entrée for Mission Chinese, he had to increase the amount of chicken to make it palatable for American eaters (and, presumably, to add value).
I also started reading some articles by Dr. Paul Bosland—known to some as “Chileman”—a professor of horticulture who lectures and writes on chile breeding and genetics at New Mexico State University. One of the most esteemed experts on capsaicinoids (one of the primary active components of chili peppers), Bosland is the co-founder and director of NMSU’s Chile Pepper Institute.
In one article from 2017, Bosland wrote, “Capsaicinoids are not sensed by our taste buds per se. Heat sensation from capsaicinoids results from the irritation of the transient receptor potential channel TRPV1….” He went on to explain that “TRPV1 are heat and pain receptors most commonly located in the mouth and throat and are positioned on the peripheral terminals of nociceptive neurons.” To translate, TRPV1 are the receptors in and around the taste buds that engage spiciness—they’re what mediate the sensation of pain when we eat food that’s too spicy. The bottom line? Your taste buds do not do the heavy lifting alone when it comes to spicy food.
I reached out to Dr. Bosland in order to clarify the relationship, asking him whether taste buds or TRPV1 are harmed by prolonged engagement with food that’s too spicy. His answer? “One should think of the capsaicinoids like one does with salt. Too much of either ruins a dish, however both heighten other flavors in the dish when used in a moderate way. There is no evidence that ‘taste buds’ are ruined.”
So there you have it: my hot sauce arsenal will remain intact. But I still wonder: are my taste buds fundamentally different than those of people in places like China, India, or Mexico?
Toward that question, Dr. Bosland told me that it’s more of a tolerance issue than a biological one. There is certainly a “genetic component in play,” as he puts it, but he mostly chalks it up to exposure. “Normally, after a year of eating spicy food, one notices that they can ‘tolerate’ hotter dishes. The same is true in the other direction. People that leave New Mexico claim that when they return, they have lost the ability to eat spicy dishes. Individuals differ in their tolerance to heat.”
Seemingly, no matter where you’re from, you can gain and lose the ability to eat spicy food. “One’s genes are in place, but there is an environmental interaction with the genes. Each of us will evolve to a specific level of ‘comfort’ with the hotness,” he explained.
I’d initially planned to give up spicy food for a week as a fun supplement to this article, but Dr. Bosland’s assurance that my taste buds would probably be fine caused me to reconsider. Like, why would I give up something that makes me happy and probably won’t ruin my life? Until further notice, you can catch me in the hot sauce aisle.