This is a post about chillies and about endorphins. If you’re into either, read on, Macduff. I’m into both.
The kernel for this post was a story by Mark Frauenfelder on Boing Boing recently, revisiting an article he’d written some time ago called The Cult of Capsaicin.
In the excerpt, Mark quotes Dave De Witt, a seasoned (yes, pun intended) veteran of books on the chili pepper. Dave in turn refers to a Yale study in the 1970s that classified people into supertasters, tasters and nontasters, based on the number of taste buds per square something-or-the-other.
I’ll come to the argument and the controversy shortly; first, some scattered seeds to help those who aren’t yet into chillies big-time.
Believe it or not, there’s actually an index, the Scoville Scale, to measure the “hotness” of food, particularly chili peppers. To give you an idea of how hot hot can be, the Naga Dorset pepper, currently claimed as the world’s hottest chillie, has a Scoville rating of between 876K and 970K. Contrast that with the habanero, a measly 100K to 350K, or with your common-or-garden jalapeno, a miserly 2.5K to 10K.
There is some evidence to suggest that chillies only grow in hot climates, and that one of their key roles is to help humans living in such hot climates to cool down. The logic goes: Eat chillie. Sweat buckets. Allow prevailing wind to operate on sweaty body. Cool down.
Now that’s not everyone’s cup of tea (although the same logic is used to explain why people drink hot tea in hot climates, to cool down….).
There is also considerable research into the protective and curative properties of the chillie (assuming that this public domain good hasn’t already been illegally patented to death); one of the more unusual bits of research suggest that some aspect of capsaicin, the active compound present in chillies, helps produce anti-carcinogenic behaviour in the human body. But that’s a deeper subject. If you are interested in the rich history, culture, science and folklore of the chillie, I would recommend you read Amal Naj’s Peppers. It’s an excellent first book on the subject.
Now to the main course of this post. Frauenfelder’s story set off alarm bells in my head, as I saw an old controversy rear its ugly head. The controversial concept is simple:
- Some people can eat hot chillies. Others can’t. The difference can be explained by the number of tastebuds.
The 1970s Yale study seemed to endorse this position, given the likelihood that people could be classified into super-tasters, tasters and non-tasters.
This is another nature-versus-nurture debate.
Man’s ability to endure chillie heat has nothing to do with tastebuds. It has to do with training the mind.
You see, chillies are a fantastic con. Let me explain.
When you drink a cup of really hot coffee or tea, you damage some tastebuds. If you lived in the US I guess you may even sue, on the basis that you couldn’t read Warning: Hot or something like that.
The damage that a hot liquid does to your tastebuds is physical. Unless you’re desperately unlucky, the damage is temporary; for a few days, a part of your tongue is over-sensitive to heat and cold, and you struggle. But soon you mend.
As against this, look what happens when you eat a really hot chillie. Brain gets message: I AM ON FIRE. Sends out the fire engines. Every mucous membrane known to mankind rains on the chillie’s parade. BrainÂ then says to itself, OK, damage limitation done. Now let’s see what else needs to be done. Oh yes, we took some serious heat there, better send out some heavy-duty painkillers. The brain then dispatches a cartload of endorphins. Shortly after, the body calms down and all is well.
Now you can train your body to be more efficient about this process. Eat chillies. Miss out the fire-engine bit. Do not pass Go. Go straight to collect endorphin consignment. Live happy.
This is not to say there isn’t a physical issue to do with chillies. Capsaicin is a major irritant. So you’re messing with death if you don’t wear gloves while chopping up really hot chillies. Don’t even think about removing contact lenses or visiting the men’s (or ladies’ ) rooms until and unless you’ve really washed your hands AND worn gloves.
The irritant aspect of capsaicin is one to be feared, especially with sensitive areas like the eyes, nose and for that matter regions further south. But most people don’t tend to eat chillies using those parts of the body.
For the mouth and the tongue, the irritant aspect is manageable and trainable. And the endorphin kick is enjoyable.
It’s only anecdotal and completely unscientific, but I know people who are serious foodies, with highly developed senses of taste, smell and flavour, who can and do eat heavy-duty chillies. At least one is also a pretty good judge of wine.
So for me I don’t buy the argument that chillie tolerance is connected to having a shortage of taste buds.