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World of Spices: Spicy Foods

By Katarina Ibach, UMES Dietetic Intern

Scoville ScaleAs someone who used not to like spicy foods, I have slowly begun to appreciate the taste and burning sensation spicy food brings to a meal. It is one of the only foods that cause me to have a total meltdown while eating.

Did you know that spiciness is not a taste but rather a sensation of pain? When we eat spicy food, certain compounds in the food stimulate receptors in our mouth called polymodal nociceptors and trigger a reaction.

It is important to note that different kinds of spicy foods are made up of different compounds. For example, wasabi contains allyl isothiocyanate. This compound vaporizes and goes directly up the nose, causing an instant uncomfortable sensation that’s very similar to tear gas. On the other hand, more traditional spice contains capsaicin, including most peppers. This compound centers around the tongue, causing an intense burning sensation.

Throughout all the pain associated with spicy foods, the consumption of these foods releases endorphins and dopamine. This creates euphoria similar to a “runners high.”

Peppers are used frequently in international dishes and are very common in Mexican, Thai and Indian cuisines. The Scoville Chart measures the heat of peppers. The higher the number, the more heat.

What are the benefits of eating spicy food?

Research has shown some health benefits associated with eating spicy food:

  • Capsaicin may help boost metabolism
  • Capsaicin acts on the part of the brain that controls hunger and fullness
  • Consumption of spicy food may reduce the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes
  • Capsaicin may have a positive effect on the gastrointestinal tract
  • Spicy foods may help reduce inflammation

Consuming spicy foods has benefits on overall health. When incorporating these foods into the diet, keep in mind that spicy food alone will not boost metabolism or lower cholesterol completely. Incorporating spicy foods into a well-balanced diet with grains, proteins, fruit, lots of vegetables along with less processed foods will be more beneficial.

How much spice is too much spice?

There are health benefits associated with incorporating spicy foods into the diet, but it should not be daily. Frequent consumption of spicy foods can lead to gastrointestinal tract discomfort, especially in those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s Disease. Other side effects include heartburn, diarrhea, gastritis and insomnia.

It is fine to consume spicy foods, just not every meal.

Meals with additional spice

Here are some examples of some international meals with some kick to it.

Curry Vindaloo
Thai Curry
Mapo Tofu
Jerk Chicken

Remember to drink milk instead of water to ease the pain from spicy food! The protein in milk, casein, helps break the bonds capsaicin forms on nerve receptors. The casein washes the capsaicin away, relieving pain.


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