Is Spicy Food Really Burning Your Mouth? Here's The Truth

Everyone has a different tolerance when it comes to spicy foods. Some people scoff at things like the Hot Pepper Challenge, while others make a point of telling their waiter they want those chile rellenos "extra mild". But what is actually going on physiologically when we eat spicy food? Or to answer one of humanity's most burning questions (literally!): Does spicy food burn our mouths when we eat it?

According to Slate, the answer is a resounding no. You're not burning your tongue or any other body part, but rather you're simply experiencing a neurological reaction. The outlet explains the burning sensation is due to the capsaicin in the pepper, "a chemical compound that clamps onto your mouth's neurotransmitters," these neurotransmitters are what causes you to experience a burning sensation. As EatingWell notes, capsaicin doesn't really have anything to do with taste or taste buds, as the human tongue only picks up five basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. Everything else is simply our nerve receptors sensing heat and sounding the alarm ... even if we like what it is we're tasting. 

Spicy food is not only hurting, it's helping

So it wasn't that Tabasco sauce you slathered your morning eggs with that caused you to feel like your mouth was burning. Rather, the Tabasco sauce simply tripped an ancient alarm bell in your nerve endings, in a response to heat. The fact that the body sends off such immediate and unmistakable warnings does raise some other interesting questions, though. Like is this healthy? Also, why do so many people really seem to enjoy eating seriously spicy foods?

As to the first question, it seems that eating spicy food has positive health benefits. Healthline shares five of them, including longer a lifespan, reduced inflammation, a speedy metabolism, and that spicy food kills harmful bacteria. That fifth benefit? Capsaicin could help fight cancer. So yes, eating spicy foods really is good for you.

As to why some people enjoy eating spicy foods, the answer seems to be uncertain, according to the BBC. Some scientists point to endorphins released when eating spicy food, while others believe it is merely an enhanced appreciation for the "variety" of life.