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Dhaka Tribune

Why do people like spicy food?

Social and cultural behaviour also plays a pivotal role in determining one's affinity for spicy food

Update : 23 Nov 2023, 07:48 PM

Although taste is inherently subjective, one cannot deny the allure of a particularly intriguing flavour—spice. But what is it about spicy food that captivates our taste buds? Let's delve into the fascinating world of spice.

According to Dr Shuchin Bajaj, the heat and pungency of spices, notably from chillies, activate nerve receptors in the mouth, unleashing endorphins. This not only relieves stress but also imparts a sense of excitement and thrill. It appears that humans are naturally inclined to introduce variety into their culinary experiences, making spice a go-to choice to "spice it up," quite literally.

Spicy food offers a contrast to typical flavours, injecting novelty and excitement into meals, Dr Bajaj mentioned in his studies.

From a purely scientific standpoint, the key player in the appeal of spicy food is capsaicin, found in chilli pepper extracts. Capsaicin releases endorphins, acting as natural painkillers and mood-enhancing chemicals in the brain.

In a 2016 theory published in the journal "Appetite," John Hayes, the director of the Sensory Evaluation Center at Penn State, suggested that the love for spicy food might be rooted in the psychology of risk and reward. A person's inclination towards risk-taking, such as participating in adventure sports, can indicate whether they are likely to enjoy spicy food. 

As Alissa Nolden, a food scientist and sensory expert at the University of Massachusetts, aptly puts it: "It all comes down to whether you get some kind of reward or rush from the pain or risk."

Social and cultural behaviour also plays a pivotal role in determining one's affinity for spicy food. Growing up in a culture where spicy food is commonplace or celebrated, as seen in countries like Thailand, India, or Bangladesh, significantly influences one's taste preferences.

Interestingly, a 2015 study in the journal "Food Quality and Preference" revealed a link between the liking of spicy food and perceived masculinity. Men in Pennsylvania were found to be more susceptible to external or social motivation for consuming spicy food than women. Liking spicy food, in this context, becomes intertwined with the concept of "machismo," creating a social pressure for men to prove their masculinity through their culinary choices.

So, while the inclination towards spicy food may initially seem like a matter of personal preference, it is essential to recognize the complex interplay of social, cultural, and psychological factors, including the influence of peer pressure. Liking spicy food transcends mere preference; it's a multifaceted experience with deeper roots in our individual and collective psyches.

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