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Bring On the Spicy

By Elizabeth Jung

Woo, that’s hot! There’s no secret that spice tolerance affects everyone differently. It’s common thinking that people from different geographical locations have better spice tolerances than others. For example, Korean cuisine is known to include extremely high levels of spiciness across the board. In fact, if one where to travel to Korea it is quite common to see restaurant menus carry “spicy scales” where the food can be made up to 5,000 SHU. Logically, it would seem correct to believe that those who grow up in cultures where they are exposed to spice constantly will be able to build up a natural tolerance for it. Thus, those who are hardly exposed to spice will have trouble consuming large amounts of spicy food.

Recent studies have actually showed that there is a genetic factor to spice tolerance. One such study was carried out by Tornwall at the University of Helsinki which tested the preferences of adult twins with strawberry jelly and strawberry jelly fused with capsaicin. Participants were asked to rate the pleasantness of the spicy strawberry jelly. The study found that 18-58% of the differences in liking for the spicy strawberry jelly is due to genetics. The study also shows that there are underlying genetic predispositions for people to prefer spicy foods in comparison to milder foods. In connection to the physical makeup of our tongues, Emily Hotton at the University of Toronto states that the tongue can only sense sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and savory. The only reason we are actually affected by spice is because the capsaicin in spicy foods binds to pain receptors on our tongue. The amount of pain receptors are determined by our genes. The more receptors we have, the more we feel pain from spicy food. Thus, genetics plays a foundational role in our preference for spicy foods.

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