by Kellye Hunter and Dave DeWitt
The power of chiles is enough to inspire mythology and folk tales, so it is not surprising that some people believe in its ability to control our minds--or at least our bodies. While it is true that many chile lovers exhibit distinctly druggie habits--we've seen people who always travel with a stash of hot sauce, Texans who carry tiny chilipiquin pods in silver snuff boxes, and Californians who indulge in the "pink fix," which is chile powder mixed with cocaine--chile is not a truly addicting substance.
According to Paul Rozin, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has done extensive research on the acquisition of chile preference, chile does not meet the criteria for true physical addition, which involves the following symptoms:
- Craving: for chile, this exists to a degree, but it never becomes a physical necessity.
- Loss of control.
- Withdrawal: we miss it, but we don't get sick without it.
- Tolerance: we adjust to higher heat levels, but we don't need increasing amounts just to feel normal.
Rozin also says that people who do not like chile do not reverse their preference as the negative taste of chile wears off (which is what happens with addictive substances such as alcohol and nicotine), and conversely, there is no evidence that the preference for chile wears off, even after long periods (weeks to years) of not eating it. Former smokers, for instance, can become ill if they try a cigarette after having not smoked for a certain amount of time.
Additionally, a study at Duke University Medical Center found that in smaller doses, capsaicin and nicotine induce some of the same physiological responses which include irritation, secretion, sneezing, vasodilation, coughing, and peptide release; however in larger, injected doses, capsaicin destroys many of the neurons containing its receptors, while nicotine actually increases the number of nicotine acetylcholine receptor. What this means is that large doses of capsaicin result in the body becoming less responsive to capsaicin, but that large doses of nicotine cause the body to become more responsive to nicotine.
While people definitely do not develop a physical addiction, they do become habituated to chiles because of their flavor, their stimulating properties, and their healthfulness. In his 1980 book, The Marriage of the Sun and Moon, Dr. Andrew Weil related a story from Santha Rama Rau's book, The Cooking of India, where an Indian woman visiting London became ill from the bland food and craved chiles so much that she poured three-quarters of a bottle of Tabasco® sauce, plus sixteen red-hot South American chiles over her omelet before she was satisfied.
"We need a fix of red or green chile with a side order of endorphins," said Dr. Frank Etscorn, then an experimental psychologist at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, and inventor of the nicotine patch, in a 1990 article for the Albuquerque Journal. "We get slightly strung out on endorphins, but it's no big deal. That year he posed a theory that the warm afterglow and the constant craving for chile are due to capsaicin triggering the release of the body's natural painkillers called endorphins, which have been called "the body's natural opiates," are the cause of the so-called runner's high, and are capable of turning a painful experience into a pleasurable one.
Return to Top
To establish a link between capsaicin and endorphins, Etscorn used a drug called naxalone, which can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose by blocking brain receptors that respond to the heroin. In one experiment, he had a student eat the hottest jalapeños he could find until his mouth was burning up and perspiration was pouring off his face. The student was then asked to indicate when the pain began to diminish, and was given at that point a naxalone injection, which caused the pain to increase as the endorphins were blocked from the brain.
Interestingly enough, chile is a substance that most mammals (birds and reptiles seem to be unaffected by its heat properties) will avoid as they would a poison. Through a series of studies, Dr. Rozin found that it is practically impossible to induce a preference for chile peppers in rats, and subsequent experiments with dogs and chimpanzees have had limited success. A study he conducted in 1979 states that humans are the only mammals that "reverse their natural rejection" to bitter "innately unpalatable substances" such as nicotine, coffee, alcohol, tobacco...and chile peppers. They can learn to prefer the flavor and physiological effects of these ingredients to the point of choosing to eat them regularly.
In the case of chile peppers, one reason for reversing this preference might be practicality. A 1980 Rozin study found that the most common reason Mexican people gave for eating chile is that it "adds flavor to food." It also observed that chile might be a digestive aid: "With a mealy and bland starch-base diet, typical of the areas where chili pepper is commonly eaten, chili aids in the ingestion and swallowing of food and may enhance the palatability of food."
But why do we choose to eat chile in the first place? It does not create physical need, and babies and young children reject it, as do adults who have never tried it. The only animals Rozin found during the course of his studies who exhibited true, laboratory-proven preference for chile, were two chimpanzees and a dog, all of which had strong relationships with humans.
And therein lies the key--socialization. Young people develop a taste for cigarettes, coffee, and alcohol by repeatedly using these substances because they want to be included and identified with a certain group, either family or peers. This is also the case with chile, stated a Rozin study. "No explicit rewards are given for eating chili in the home," it said. "There is, however, the possible more subtle reward for being adult and doing what members of one's society do, as well as the less subtle encouragement of parents and peers."
Another Rozin study asked American college students how they got started eating chile, and the most common response was that they used it at home, or that their parents put it on food. In Mexico, where chile-eating is a part of everyday life, very young children are protected from exposure to it, then allowed to develop their own preference, which usually starts between the ages of four and eleven.
This socialization theory explains possibly why people start eating chile in the first place, but in a non-chile-centered society, the reasons they continue to eat it are less clear. Rozin's "Benign Masochism" or "Constrained Risk" theory holds that people like chile peppers for the same reasons they like roller coasters, scary movies, and stepping into hot baths. All of these activities provide methods of exciting the body by making it respond to a dangerous situation, while the mind is certain that circumstances are safe. "This body/mind disparity may be a source of feelings of mastery and pleasure, a case of body over mind," the study said. Additionally, Rozin has found that it is not uncommon for people to like the body's defensive responses, such as the nose and eye tearing that result from eating hot peppers; and he says that people often eat chile at a heat level close to the highest they can tolerate, which means that liking chile is related to pushing the limits of pain and tolerance.
Having worked in the Fiery Foods Industry for a number of years, we have found that many of the people who like hot foods tend to be a little more outgoing than those who do not. They like traveling, wearing colorful clothing, meeting new people, and trying new things. Perhaps eating chile peppers is the culinary expression of an adventurous spirit and a fun-seeking nature.
Excerpted from The Healing Powers of Peppers, by Dave DeWitt, Melissa T. Stock, and Kellye Hunter (Three Rivers Press, 1998). Available from online used book stores.
Top of Page