The Strange Attraction of a Repulsive Affection

or: Why Do People Eat Chile Peppers?

Pungency is not a taste.

The hot, burning sensation produced by chile peppers is pain.

Physiologically, it affects the same receptors which tell us when we are trying to eat something that’s too hot in temperature. (Or potentially harmful in other ways, which is why the smoke of burning chilli makes us cough.)

The “intent” of this pungency is to deter mammals.
Initially, it works with us humans.

In some cultures, small children are weaned off breast-feeding using chiles: the moms will rub chilli on their breasts, the kids will stop drinking (the text in which I read about that fails to mention that it doesn’t sound particularly enjoyable for the moms, but anyways…).

And still, such children, growing up in cultures using chiles like that, may grow up to eat fire…

Considering such oddities, it’s a rather burning question just why chile peppers tend to get popular with humans.

Competing – or Complementary? – Theories

Many theories are put forth by botanists or nutritional scientists.

Their background is in natural sciences, and the most popular explanations have some background in evolutionary biology, arguing that chile peppers became popular because of…

  • microbial-antibacterial effects
    Capsaicin kills off germs. This is particularly important in tropical regions and when consuming meats. Hence, the popularity of the chiles in those areas.
  • nutritional considerations
    Chillis are rich in vitamins A and C. These, in turn, are lacking in some traditional diets, particularly such which mainly consume rice. Adding peppers to rice, one gets a fairly decent meal already.

There are also suggestions based on physiological and psychological effects of the chile peppers:

  • hot temperatures and the cooling effect of chile-induced sweating
    This is easy to understand: You’ll feel hot when you eat chilli, it will make you sweat – and the sweat, it is argued, will cool you down
  • release of endorphins
    It’s a kind of pain, and the body reacts the way it always does: Endorphins are released to combat the feeling of pain, and they produce a euphoric feeling (at least, once the pain subsides)
  • masochism
    For a long time and in most publications, this reason tends not to be mentioned, but it’s become rather popular since Paul Rozin used “benign masochism” as explanation for why we humans can like things such as rollercoaster rides – or chile peppers.
  • machismo
    There is also a certain aspect of “proving one’s mettle.” This doesn’t seem to be too strong, it doesn’t explain why people just come to enjoy eating (extra-)spicy foods, even by themselves, but it points to social aspects which definitely play a role.

It only pushes back the question a little, but there could have been an effect of culture/cuisine:

  • cultural pre-adaptation
    Many cultures which rapidly integrated chile peppers into their cuisines already used other hot spices (such as pepper, sansho/Sichuan pepper, waterpepper)

One interesting problem with many theories is the modern, rapidly increasing popularity of chile peppers and the pungency they provide.

They are becoming so popular, so quickly, evolutionary or “cultural-preadaptive” reasonings don’t appear to fit.


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