The Science of BBQ - Spicy Foods

For many, food isn’t just fuel. Food is a way of life, full of family and memorable moments. Eating spicy foods is fundamental in many cultures, but why do people like spicy food? Humans are the only animals that are known to consume foods that cause discomfort and pain willingly. Is it that we, as a species, are drawn to a safe way of experiencing danger? Or is it that we inherently know that these foods are, in some fashion, healthy? Explore how spicy food actually works, what spice is, and why we love it so, in this Science of Barbecue – Spicy Foods edition.


What is Spicy?

When you think of something spicy, you generally tend to think of hot peppers, curry, chili, and jerk. These foods all originate in a climate where food spoilage is more prevalent. One school of thought is that one of the inherent properties of spicy peppers is antimicrobial and used to try and preserve meats.

Spicy peppers, in particular, are rated on a Scoville scale, which is how much the capsaicin – the naturally occurring oil in hot peppers that cause the spicy feeling – is diluted before the heat is no longer detectable. A sweet bell pepper would be a 0 on the scale, while hot sauce like tobacco is around 2400, and the hottest peppers like Scorpion are over 1.5 million.

However, not all spicy foods are spicy in the same way. Hot peppers, ground pepper, and ginger have large molecules. These compounds, called alkylamides, aren’t as volatile as others and will remain in the mouth, throat, and stomach as they pass through the digestive tract. Other spicy things like mustard, horseradish, and wasabi – a member of the mustard family - are very volatile, especially when chewed, the smaller isothiocyanates will also travel up the nose, attaching to the sinus nerves there making your nose and eyes water as well.

Mint and menthol are just cold spicy. Anything with menthol hits the same receptors that experience spicy in your mouth, only they create the sensation of cold instead.


There is a huge difference between tasting something and its flavor. Taste is the physical action of detecting what something tastes like and takes place when that thing hits your tongue and soft pallet. Flavor is the whole experience, the taste of what is hitting your tongue, combined with the smell as it comes towards you. Texture also plays a huge part in the way something tastes – imagine eating a fresh peach. The warm skin, the juicy and sweet smell, the slick sugary flesh with the light textured snap of the skin as you bite. This has huge implications when you add things that are “spicy”. Capsaicin reduces the sense of sweetness in foods that contain sweet flavors, while increasing the sense of saltiness in foods that are salty. The thing is, the capsaicin is also activating receptors in your mouth that are intended to detect temperature and pain, which can add to or detract from the whole experience of flavor.



How do People Experience Spicy?

Spicy foods affect people differently. Some are more sensitive than others meaning that people all experience the feeling of spice in distinct ways. Scientifically speaking, the oils in spicy things, like capsaicin in hot peppers, binds itself to the TRPV1 Vanilloid receptors in the mouth. This depolarizes the sensory neurons and sends a pain signal to the brain indicating a temperature sensation, in this case, hot. The genes that produce the protein that detects heat vary from person to person making you more or less responsive to this sensation, which is why some people can barely handle black pepper, while others are loving those habaneros. This sensation can add to your meal experience or cause too much discomfort and prevent the enjoyment of a meal.

You have the same TRPV1 Vanilloid receptors all over the body to protect you from the environment. They are there to detect physical temperature and prevent burns or cold damage. That is why when you work with hot peppers it is suggested to wear gloves as if the capsaicin makes it below the skin to hit these receptors it can cause the same physical response as if you are being burned by something hot like picking up lit charcoal or grabbing a hot pan out of the oven without a glove. Speaking from experience, if you have any sort of micro-cut in your outer layer of skin and get anything spicy on those areas, you are in for a world of hurt that can last up to twelve hours. Please use caution.


Why Do People Love Spicy Food?

There is both a physical and a phycological component to the enjoyment of hot things too. There are a few out there that love the thrill of eating a spicy meal. These people are genetically predisposed to be a thrill-seeker. It’s trying something dangerous in a safe way. When you consume things that are spicy, adrenaline kicks in, you experience an elevated heart rate, begin to sweat, and this releases endorphins and dopamine to create a euphoric sensation. These sensations all occur because your body thinks it is being injured, and accumulated effects create a sense of pleasure and wellbeing. In the end, many who enjoy hot foods feel that these feelings have heightened the entire eating experience.

Many differing opinions on whether or not you can “train” yourself to like spicy food – some say that you can, others say you become tougher and build a tolerance for the pain being experienced.



Do Spicy Foods have Medicinal Properties?

As mentioned before, there is a theory that the thing that makes peppers spicy has antimicrobial and antibacterial properties that aid in the preservation and preparation of food – mostly meat.

Consumption of spicy foods can possibly help you live longer. While these studies have been incredibly open-ended and self-reported, the entrants can experience levels of spice differently, it was noticed that many who consumed spicy food on the regular had a 14% reduction in risk of death from heart and respiratory disease, as well as cancer.

Spicy foods may also help lower blood sugar by increasing levels of adiponectin in the body. This is a hormone that helps to regulate blood sugar. It is incredibly helpful for those who experience insulin resistance and diabetes. Spice increases salivation as well.

While these findings are not conclusive, in fact, there needs to be far more studies done into nutritional health and its correlation with spicy meals, one thing is for sure, consuming spice will be a huge shot in the arm for your weekly meal plan.


How to Help if it's Too Hot

If you are consuming spicy foods or cooking them, sometimes things get out of hand. What do you do? Here are some tips to help when things get too hot whether you are cooking or consuming.

Capsaicin is hydrophobic and consuming water will likely spread the offending spice around. It is, however, fat-soluble, meaning that it will dissolve in the presence of fats and oils.


If you eat something too spicy
It helps to remember that Capsaicin is fat-soluble, not water-soluble, so instead of reaching for that jug of ice water that will only spread the burn around, try:

  • Drinking milk (2%+), coconut water, or a yogurt-based drink.

  • Eat some sour cream, sugar, rice, honey, or an alkaline food like lime, lemon, orange, pineapple, or tomato.

  • Have a bite of ice cream (made with cream) or eat some milk chocolate.

  • If you get it on your hands, wash with dish soap.


If you cook something too spicy
When it comes to spicy foods, a little will go a long way. It pays to add a little and let the flavors blend a bit before tasting and adjusting. If you do accidentally add too much when spicing things up, try one of these to help cool your dish down.

  • Before you begin cooking, remove the seeds and veins-the thin flappy thing that’s a lighter color than the pepper itself. These contain more concentrations of capsaicin.

  • If it’s too late and the finished dish is too spicy, add dairy – a dollop of sour cream on top, a sprinkle of cheese.

  • If you’re still cooking and realize it is too hot, add sweeter ingredients, not necessarily by adding sugar but adding tomatoes to a dish. Honey, brown sugar, maple syrup, or even fruit in some form can have the same results.

  • Acids like vinegar or a squeeze of lime can help calm that spice down.

  • Adding a fatty nut butter like peanut or almond to a dish will help cool a too spicy meal because the oils will bind to the capsaicin and help much like when you eat something too spicy. If you are making a sauce, do this before adding the sauce to the finished meal. Adding peanut butter will also add some insane depth of flavor to chili and curry.

  • You can also try adding chocolate to chili or curry to do the same thing as adding nut butters.




Are you a spice lover or do you prefer to keep things tame? How do you experience spicy foods? Share your love or hate of spice, your favorite recipes, and even your adventures in eating spicy things on our social pages like Facebook and Instagram, using the hashtags #SpicyBBQ and #NapoleonGrills.

Happy Grilling!

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