From YouTube to Reddit threads to foodie blogs — pop culture is abound with love for spice! Some people delight in the feeling of eating spicy food and even make a challenge out of it — while others will scurry away from the painful experience. Have you ever wondered what actually makes the food spicy or why you experience a burning sensation? The answer comes from a chemical that resides in chili peppers called capsaicin [1]. This chemical reacts with your mucus membrane creating the painful effects and making any food with ample amounts a force to reckon with.

Origin

Chili peppers were unknown to the Old World until 400 years ago [2] when Christopher Columbus set sail to find a new route to India. When he instead made landfall on an island inhabited by indigenous people of the Caribbean, he discovered their use of chili peppers in native cuisine. These were the first peppers to make their way back to Spain [2].Chili peppers were not popular in Europe at the time, of course, but the path for migration was now open to the Americas. Migrant populations began to induct chili peppers into their traditional cuisines and their popularity grew. The first Europeans to embrace the heat were the Portuguese — it only took 50 years for the rest of the world to conform [2]!

The original use of chili peppers can be traced to a time long before Columbus set out from Spain, though. The earliest natives of Mexico, in the areas of Tehuacán and Ocampo, were known to have consumed them around 7000–5000 BCE [3]. They spread from there to most of Central and South America — eventually being consumed regularly [2]. Consumption wasn’t the only use of chili peppers either, they were known to be used medicinally by some civilizations such as the Mayans and as a form of food preservation.

In Peru during the spanish conquest, it was used as a torture device. It was also used as toxic gases during warfare.

Effects

Eating chilling peppers, for the most part, won’t do harm to you unless ingested in large quantities [1]. Capsaicin, the molecule that causes the burning sensation, binds to the vanilloid receptor subtype 1 (TRPV1) [5]. This receptor is a member of the TRP family which are ion channels involved in the sensory role of the body [5]. When capsaicin is consumed the capsaicin protein binds to TRPV1 and gets activated. One of the roles associated with TRPV1 is the sense of high temperature or heat. The receptor sends signals to the spine telling the brain that there is something burning on the tongue. Capsaicin acts the same way as biting into a hot pizza but since it is bound to the TRPV receptor the sensation is prolonged [1].

Fig. 4 Unravelling the Mystery of Capsaicin: A Tool to Understand and Treat Pain from Jessica O’Neill et al. Pharmacol Rev. 2012 Oct; 64(4): 939–971. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3462993/

One way to counteract the effects of capsaicin is to look at its chemical properties. Capsaicin is a part of the vanilloid family and is hydrophobic which means it is not water-soluble. The best way to tackle its effects would be to have some type of dairy as this will help remove capsaicin from the area [1].

Capsaicin research and pain

With the discovery of the TRPV1 receptor and capsaicin causing pain, there has been a move to better understand pain in the human body [4]. More research in this field can help produce alternative drugs for pain that do not have adverse side effects like the current medication. More research in the TRP family of receptors could further lead to an engineered solution for producing pain medications [4].

Citations and Links

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3462993/

[2] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/whats-so-hot-about-chili-peppers-116907465/

[3] https://www.pnas.org/content/111/17/6165

[4] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9349813/

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK5260/

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