The spice of life?: Understanding Capsaicin

Growing up in New Orleans, I pretty much hated the food most folks travel from all over the world to sample.  It wasn't the ingredients or the taste that turned me off; it was the fact that it was always and excessively spicy.

To me, most "spicy" spices in and of themselves contribute nothing to the taste.  It's another sense entirely that comes into play: Pain.  I cannot figure out for the life of me what people get out of turning a meal into an episode of Jackass.  Watering eyes replenished by downing glasses of water (if not running directly to the kitchen faucet) to chase searing pain away from your tongue do not seem like an enjoyable experience to me.

So where did I move when I left Louisiana?  Texas.  Worse yet, I partnered up with a girl from El Paso who likes nothing but Mexican food that she has eaten all her life.  Me?  I like sushi without wasabi.  There are some differences we will never accommodate, so when we go out to eat, I usually have dry chips without salsa while she has a full meal and takes home leftovers I will never touch.  Our wedding reception featured two tables: one with Mexican food, one with Japanese.

I've been described as having a "sensitive" tongue, and while I freely acknowledge that I have some sensory gating difficulties (e.g., I don't like loud music/noises either), I should offer the correct perspective on this issue: specifically, those who eat spicy food on a regular basis have a cauterized tongue.  I'm not giving you a bullshit metaphor either.  Hot-heads literally burn out their sense of taste where spices are concerned.

See, the active ingredient in foods made with chili peppers is a chemical called capsaicin.  It activates a certain subset of nerves in humans (and many other animals) called C-fibers.  These carry signals usually described as "slow burning pain" such as the dull throbbing of a sprained ankle or a scraped knee.  It isn't the sharp pain of a pin-prick or touching a hot coffee cup that looks cool (Those sensations are transmitted by A-fibers); it's the pain that follows.  Fun fact: This is the same neurologic pathway tarantula venom utilizes to make you regret bothering any member of their species.

The galling thing about capsaicin is that, unlike almost any other taste, you can't simply wash it away the way you can with sugar or salt or even wasabi.  It sits inside the taste buds (most of which are, in fact, not buds but pits) and isn't water soluble.  The only way to clear it rapidly (which is a relative thing when your tongue feels like it's on fire) is the application of fatty substances that it will dissolve in like butter or milk (which are also soothing in that they are usually cold).

Remember when I said it burns out the sense that conveys it?  A paradoxical property of capsaicin is that it gradually but specifically destroys the very fibers that carry information about its presence.  This substance is used medically to kill nerves in chronic pain cases such as in late-stage AIDS patients, and on your tongue it does much the same.  Over time and upon repeated exposures, the natural sensitivity we have to it is lost.  Those who grow up eating spicy foods find that there is less and less and less "kick" to their favorite dishes over time.  Since the other senses of taste (e.g., sweet, sour, bitter, etc.) rely on different mechanisms for their transduction and transmission, they are not affected at any stage of this assault.  The decline in this specific sense, however, means hardcore spice addicts find that they have to resort to carrying their own bottles of Tabasco to amplify what were previous adequate amounts from the chef.  In short, they've killed the sensation they sought merely by experiencing it.

On the other hand, those of us who despise spicy foods from the start will always find ourselves acutely affected by even moderate amounts of this substance... thus the disparity between the two groups can only grow over time.  As a result, one party can never serve as a reliable taster for the other.  The relative concentrations that equate to an effective dose are not even in the same ballpark.

Dani still has some sensitivity, so I ask her to sample and give her assessment of suspect foods such as sausages and cheeses.  I have her trained now to err on the side of caution.  The trick is to ignore any word between "not" and "spicy."  For some folks, a reading of "not very spicy" might be okay, but for me the needle needs to rest squarely on "not spicy."  Period.  "Not that spicy" still translates as spicy... at least to me.



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