It’s evident in the growing number of specialty spice stores and the hot sauces they sell, many with daunting and morbid names like Texas Tongue Torch, Insanity, or titles with variants of death, nuclear and devil in them.
It’s definitely evident on YouTube, where one can peruse endless videos of people punishing their taste buds, whether it’s a popular, professionally produced series like “Hot Ones” — where celebrities sit down with host Sean Evans for an interview while eating progressively hotter chicken wings — or the countless amateur clips of people eating the hottest peppers they can get their hands on, often with varying levels of nausea.
It’s evident: Our love of heat — even to the point of pain — is at an all-time high and showing no signs of slowing down. But why?
Pain, pride and pleasure
Julie Stevens is vice-president and co-founder of Brimstone Originals Specialty Foods, a Largo, FL, company that produces unique jellies, especially ones that are loaded with heat. Brimstone’s best-selling jelly is also its hottest — the All Natural Habañero Pepper Jelly.
Stevens says one reason she thinks consumers are hungry for heat is simply for competition. “We’ve noticed a sort of craze over who can eat the hottest pepper,” she says. “Everywhere we go we see restaurants adding an ever-hotter sauce, and the customers love it. It never ceases to amaze us the amount of self-inflicted pain a person will go through just to win bragging rights. These are true pepper heads.”
Dr. Paul Rozin — a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the leading experts on determinants of human food choice, whose name comes up often when researching spice — calls it “benign masochism.” According to the New York Times, Rozin tested chili eaters by gradually upping the pungency of food to the point subjects said they could go no further. After the test, the subjects said the level of heat they enjoyed the most was the one just below the level of unbearable pain.
According to John McQuaid, in his book “Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat,” the sensations of pleasure and aversion closely overlap in our brains. Both rely on nerves in the brainstem, which point to their ancient origins as reflexes, and both tap into the brain’s system of dopamine neurons, which shapes motivation.
“Anatomy also suggests that these two systems interact closely,” McQuaid writes. “In several brain structures, neurons responding to pain and pleasure lie close together, forming gradients from positive to negative. A lot of this cross-talk takes place close to hedonic hot spots — areas that respond to endorphins released during stress, boosting pleasure.”
Thus, the love of heat could be nothing more than these two systems of pleasure and pain working together. As Rozin wrote in the journal Motivation and Emotion, “people also come to like the fear and arousal produced by rides on roller coasters, parachute jumping, or horror movies. These ‘benignly masochistic’ activities, along with chili preference, seem to be uniquely human.”
This all points to the suggestion that one of the biggest draws to eating hot foods is the relief when the experience is over. McQuaid also writes of Dr. Siri Leknes’ study, which gave 18 volunteers two tasks while their brains were scanned: one pleasant and one unpleasant. The scans showed that relief and pleasure were connected, overlapping in one area of the frontal cortex.
When this information is applied to videos of so-called pepper heads trying some of the world’s hottest peppers, one thing is evident: “Watching these, it’s clear that whatever enjoyment might be derived from savoring chili flavors, true satisfaction comes only in the aftermath: the relief at having endured, and survived,” McQuaid writes.
While the preceding science and information is no doubt interesting, it’s not necessarily pertinent to retail foodservice sales. It does, however, tie in with the mindset (and taste buds) of a growing number of consumers. They want new flavors and they’re not scared of something that might have been deemed “too hot” a decade ago.
“We’ve learned from years of demos of our pepper jellies that consumers are eager to explore flavors beyond ketchup and mustard,” says Eileen O’Hara, president and co-founder of Brimstone. “Consumers have learned that their food consumption can take on a whole new personality when adding varied levels of heat.”
Offering multiple levels of spice in prepared foods could be beneficial, touching on the sensitivities and adventurousness of many different types of consumers. “We’ve also learned that ‘hot’ is a relative term,” O’Hara says. “While a few who sample our mildest pineapple pepper jelly may be sensitive to the minimal amount of red pepper flakes added to it, others who sample our hottest habañero, which is hot right out of the jar, have incredible tolerance for heat.”
Accommodating these consumers can lead to the turning up of spice levels on a variety of items throughout the fresh and prepared side of a market. “The versatility of hot peppers makes them easy to use, from breakfast through dinner and dessert, and there are many ways to work them into meals,” O’Hara says. “More and more pepper heads are discovering how easy growing peppers can be. Even apartment dwellers can keep plants in containers on balconies for personal use.”
Or, retailers can save consumers the trouble and begin turning up the heat on their prepared offerings now.