Why does spicy food taste spicy

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Salt, chilies and pepper are the most common spices used in cooking. While some get heartburn from spicy foods, others cannot imagine meals without a certain “fire”. What makes food spicy and is spicy food healthy?

Where does the sharpness come from?

There are numerous spices that get their spiciness from different substances, such as

  • Capsaicin in chilli
  • Piperine in pepper
  • Mustard oil in merettich and mustard
  • Allicin in garlic
  • Gingerol in ginger

Chilies in particular are used more and more often in German kitchens to season dishes. Even chocolate is refined with it. The chilli varieties differ in color, size, aroma and heat.
So-called capsaicinoids are responsible for the spiciness of the chillies. This also includes capsaicin, which makes up two thirds to three quarters of the total capsaicinoid content.
Capsaicin stimulates the nerves in the oral mucosa, which are responsible for the perception of heat and pain stimuli. So sharpness is not a type of taste, like salty, sweet, bitter, sour or umami, but a pain reaction.

Sharpness can be measured

The heat of chillies or chilli products can be determined using the Scoville unit (Scoville Heat Units, SHU). The Scoville unit indicates how many milliliters of water you need to dilute the concentration so that it just tastes hot. For example, to neutralize 1 milliliter of Tabasco sauce (4,500 SHU) you need 4.5 liters of water. By determining the capsaicin content, the spiciness can now also be measured analytically (1 mg capsaicin / kg = 16.1 SHU).

Table 1: Degree of severity according to Scoville

Scoville [SHU]


0 - 10

Sweet peppers

100 - 500

Hot peppers

2.500 - 8.500

Tabasco sauce

100.000 - 250.000  

Habanero chilli

2 million

commercial pepper spray

16 million

pure capsaicin

Is Spicy Food Healthy?

Capsaicin works in a variety of ways. The pain stimulus releases endorphins. That's why chilli and other hot spices are said to make you happy. At the same time, the capsaicin leads to hot flashes and perspiration. It is assumed that people in warm regions make conscious use of this effect. By sweating, the body temperature is lowered and the body cools down. In Mexico and Thailand, between 25-200 mg of capsaicinoids are ingested daily through the consumption of chillies. In Central Europe, on the other hand, the average intake is only 1.5 mg per day. The antibacterial effect of capsaicin has another positive effect on the storage of food in warm countries. The development of microorganisms is inhibited.
In addition, capsaicin stimulates gastric motor skills and increases gastric juice secretion. This is how it stimulates digestion. High-fat foods can be digested better due to the increased gastric juice production. The flow of saliva is also stimulated by spicy food, which can have a positive effect on dental health. The vasodilator effect of capsaicin leads to improved blood circulation, including the mucous membranes, which also sensitizes the taste sensation.

In moderation for a sensitive stomach

Especially people with a sensitive stomach should be careful with spicy foods. This can result in stomach pain or diarrhea. Heartburn can be aggravated by the stimulating effect of gastric juice production. There may be a link between the consumption of very spicy foods and cancer of the upper digestive organs. Long-term consumption of very spicy food has been linked to esophageal cancer.

Be careful with extra hot chilli sauces and extracts

Spicy to very spicy dishes from traditional African or Asian cuisine are unfamiliar to Central Europeans, but occasional consumption does not harm your health. Excessive consumption of chilli preparations and chillies can, however, lead to health problems (nausea, irritation of the mucous membranes, vomiting, high blood pressure) and be life-threatening. Children in particular are very sensitive to chilli products. The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment therefore advises consumers against consuming unusually large quantities of extremely hot chilli sauces and chilli fruits.

Safe handling of the "agitators"

  • Use spicy spices in moderation. After all, the food should still be edible.
  • When using chillies and chilli products, always approach the heat slowly.
  • Capsaicinoids irritate the eyes! You should therefore wash your hands or wear gloves after handling chillies.
  • Capsaicin is fat soluble. Milk or milk products or starchy foods (rice, bread) in combination with edible oil or fats help with burning pain.

Author: Ann-Katrin Hillenbrand
Image author: Friederike Wöhrlin


March 03/19