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1326-2T I really like spicy food. A lot. Though I appreciate a good habanero or ghost pepper, sometimes fresh peppers do not keep well. So I’m a bit of a connoisseur of hot sauces. Recently I ordered two bottles of Da Bomb, Ground Zero. At ~250,000 S coville units it’s spicy enough to satisfy me, but unlike the Final Answer it doesn’t seem positively dangerous (when I put the Final Answer on a burger, I ate with gloves on). I recommend readers who trust me in this area to check this hot sauce out, it’s a really good value for the price, and though it isn’t as flavorful as milder concoctions it doesn’t taste nearly as chemical as some of the Dave’s Insanity line.

Because of the high amount of spice that I consume I’m always looking out for the scientific implications of the consumption. On the whole it seems like it’s a wash in terms of the results, so I focus on the hedonic utility. But Nautilus Magazine has a infographic up, The New Superfood? Spice. The whole idea of a “superfood” is pretty fallacious in my opinion, but it points me to the research in question, a presentation today at the Biophysical Society meeting:

Obesity contributes to diabetes, hypertension and myocardial infarction. Exercise is an effective measure to counteract obesity. Recent research demonstrates a regulatory role of transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 (TRPV1) in high fat diet (HFD)-induced obesity. Here, we evaluated the effects of exercise ± dietary capsaicin (CAP, 0.01% of total HFD), an active ingredient in natural chili peppers and a TRPV1 agonist, on HFD-fed wild type and TRPV1-/- (TRPV1 knockout) mice. We evaluated the performance of normal chow diet (NCD) or HFD (±CAP)-fed mice on computer-controlled rotarod. Trained mice were exercised for 12 min./day for five days a week. HFD+CAP-fed mice walked on the rotarod for a longer duration of the exercise regimen (630 ± 69 sec.) and showed lesser weight gain after 25 weeks of feeding (11.5 ± 2.1 g) compared to exercised HFD-fed mice (440 ± 215 sec.; 27.5 ± 2.1 g). Both sedentary and exercised HFD-fed groups exhibited similar weight gain, albeit an increase in food consumption shown by exercised HFD-fed group. Also, exercised HFD + CAP-fed mice showed an increased metabolic activity compared to exercised HFD-fed group. Further, NCD-fed WT mice walked for longer duration on the rotarod (704 ± 14 sec) and gained lesser weight at 20 weeks of feeding (4.5 ± 0.7 g) than NCD-fed TRPV1-/- mice (665 ± 50 sec.; 7.7 ± 2.1 g). CAP prevented weight gain to a similar extent in both sedentary and exercised wild type mice. Also, Dietary CAP improved the endurance of mice on rotarod and counteracted HFD-induced suppression of muscle coordination. This suggests a novel role of TRPV1 in metabolism and muscle coordination function. Collectively, our data provide evidence for the role of TRPV1 and its activation by dietary CAP and exercise to inhibit HFD-induced obesity

I’m not much into studies on mice, but those who know this area can tell me whether this is legit or not. As someone who is focused on burning the fat I’m quite happy that my consumption habits might be helping me stave off corpulence.

• Category: Science • Tags: Spice 
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Mr. Jason Goldman has a post up, On Capsaicin: Why Do We Love to Eat Hot Peppers?. We don’t need no stinkin’ science for this. Do some ethnography with an N = 1: me. Those of us who love spicy food are just awesome! Recently I went to a Thai restaurant for the first time in 4 years which I used to frequent weekly in 2006-2007. Every Saturday I’d go and get a beef salad, which the chef would specially prepare for me by rubbing in a habanero paste into the meat ahead of time. That was the “four star” spicy level. When I reappeared after all this time the host exclaimed, “It’s Mr. four star!” Despite the years much of the staff which had been around back then remembered me. Back in the day sometimes they’d even watch me eat the dish to observe if I’d live to tell the tale. I can tell you similar stories from other restaurants. My very high spice tolerance threshold has reached such a level of virtuosity that people are often taken aback, and strangers will often comment upon it.

My point is that consumption of spicy food isn’t just a experience of the palette, it is deeply social. It is a signal of awesomeness, like having big antlers.

Here are some of Jason’s ideas:

Perhaps we seek out the painful experience of snacking on chillies while consciously maintaining awareness that there is no real danger to ourselves. After all, people seem to enjoy – and actively seek out – many other sensations that are otherwise undesirable but are ostensibly safe: the sensation of falling provided by rollercoasters or skydiving, the feelings of fear and anxiety while watching horror movies, the physical pain experienced upon jumping into icy water, or even the feelings of sadness that come while watching a tear-jerker. Perhaps it is this cognitive mismatch itself that provides the thrill: like strapping into a rollercoaster or popping Hostel into your DVD player over and over again, the burn of capsaicin only seems to be threatening.

Image credit: Andrew Bushby

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As some of you know, I have a problem. An addiction that is. For most of the year I stock up on fresh habanero pepper. Usually I try to limit myself to 1-2 peppers per meal…but when not in the company of others who may civilize me I can lose control and eat more than half a dozen in a sitting. After the first few peppers they just don’t taste as spicy, and I suppose psychologically I am under the illusion that enough peppers will bring back the pleasure high of a few moments earlier. I developed this habit not through cultural inculcation. Rather, when I went off to college and no one supervised me I began to eat more and more peppers, and developed an extremely high threshold of tolerance. By the end of college I began to raid my parents’ thai peppers at home to the point where they complained that I always left their stock depleted before going back to school. At this point I can drink tabasco sauce like gatorade.

But the different parts of the gastrointestinal system adapt differently. When I “habanero gorge” I develop extreme pain in my bowels in a few hours, and of course there are issues the next day. Over the years I’ve poked around the literature on possible correlations between pepper consumption and stomach cancer, or the anti-pathogenic properties of peppers. I’m pretty sure I’m well beyond the limit of normal consumption in any of these studies.

My primary motivation in consuming peppers is pure hedonism, as can be attested by the fact that my consumption is constrained by the presence of others. But there are clear social consequences to eating extremely spicy food. People take notice when you pile on crushed read peppers onto pizza, or pull out a habanero at In-N-Out Burger. At nice restaurants you sometimes get well known for being the guy who likes the habanero paste lathered onto his beef, to the point where new servers might drop by to gawk. There can be a clear element of social signalling in consuming very spicy foods. In short, people can think you are a “badass.” Of course actually I’m a cheerful and self-effacing individual! (granted, with a casual tendency to verbally bludgeon people)

I thought of this when Amos pointed me to this report in Discover on a hot sauce made from Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper. According to some reports this pepper is about 1 order of magnitude spicier than habaneros! (in scoville units) I’m not totally unfamiliar with such levels of spice. A few years ago I tried a bunch of hot sauces, and I also ordered pure capsaicin, the active ingredient in peppers. If you want a hot sauce that is very hot, I’d go with Dave’s Insanity. The pure capsaicin was crazy spicy. Really I got overwhelmed with one drop. What you’re really supposed to do with that stuff is make sauces with a drop here and there. I did do that. But what I prefer is to take fresh habaneros and make sauce out of that. A sauce shouldn’t just be diluted spice, it should have other flavors. I like habaneros, cilantro, oil, vinegar, and water. It seems that beyond a certain level of heat you can’t really experience any more sensation. The spicier the quality, the less quantity you can take in. So the subjective feel of a tiny drop of capsaicin can be equivalent to a whole habanero, despite there differences on the scoville and physical scales.

Below are two charts showing differences on the scoville scale. I grabbed the data from Wikipedia (with some averaging):

Image Credit: Ryan Bushby

• Category: Science • Tags: Food, Health, Spice 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"