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Is the need for spiciness in food the sign of a elevated palate? [moved from Boston board]

Just wondering? I read a lot of posts that mention heat levels in dishes or pepper counting, as it were. Is someone who doesnt like their food spicy missing something or is it a matter of taste?
Personally, I love a spicy dish but I know many people that don't, and many that i would consider educated foodies. Is an aversion to spiciness damning in your opinion?

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  1. Not at all. Palates vary widely. Some people have more receptors for certain tastes than others, and thus need less stimulation else they get overwhelmed. There are people who treat spiceness like it's some macho contest, but you should confidently ignore that.

    1. I'd never consider my palate even slightly elevated, yet I'm addicted to spices and hot sauces -- especially those loaded with habaneros. I don't think there is a connection between spiciness and the altitude of one's palate.

      1. I agree. I think people like spicy and don't like spicy just the same as people like sharp cheese or mellow or crusty bread of soft. It's all personal.

        As for how hot people feel it, I've read that it boils down to how many taste buds you have. The more you have, the more you can stand the heat. As men generally have more taste buds than women, it explains why men are more into spicy foods than women are.


        8 Replies
        1. re: Davwud

          I believe it's the reverse, the more receptors you have, the more easily you can be overwhelmed.

          1. re: Karl S

            Nope, I distinctly remember thinking that the reason you don't feel it as much is because each taste bud actually gets less of the volitile oils.

            That's not to say that what I read was right. I'll check when I can.


            1. re: Davwud

              Karl S is right. Super-tasters (those with a much higher number of taste buds / square cm) generally have trouble tolerating super spicy foods.

              1. re: Prav

                Here's the latest scientific stuff from Mark Zoller, chief scientific officer of Senomyx. Please read his articles for follow-up.

                You could more accurately say that a spicy-hot addict has a de-elevated palate
                or diminished palate. Each one of our taste buds tastes sour, sweet, salty, etc. (it's not determined by tongue region as thought previously) and a little relay to the brain is in each taste bud for each taste. When more and more spicy hot foods are consumed, the relay for the taste spicy heat down-regulates -- this is important -- so that less of that sensation is relayed and registered by the brain. The result is that takes hotter foods to cause the same sensation of heat. Pure physiology.

                This is a separate issue from supertasters possessing greater number of taste buds per square centimeter.

          2. re: Davwud

            The myth that men are better tasters than women needs to die, for your review:

            At Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Grenoble biologists came up with two sets of findings. The first, that had been more or less known by people in the food and wine industry for a hundred or more years, was that people fall into three broad categories - non-tasters, normal tasters and super-tasters, that is to say, people with limited ability, normal ability and extra-ordinary ability to discern the flavors and aromas in foods and beverages. What amazed the researchers (who were mostly males) and the wine-tasting public (especially the male chauvinists among that group) was the second finding - that nearly 80 percent of super-tasters are women and not men. Simply stated, women have a genetic proclivity towards having a greater number of taste buds and a greater concentration of scent receptors and that makes them better qualified than the majority of men to taste wines. It is thus far more than mere coincidence that women rank very high indeed among the most highly respected people who write about and taste wines for a living.

            And I think the idea that men are "more into spicy foods" than women can be attributed to the need for many men to seem macho or maculine and not because they have more taste buds.

            1. re: glazebrookgirl

              All I could find about that quote you gave above (unattributed to Daniel Rogov) is the article itself. Do you have the original reference? I haven't found it any research journal database so far.

              1. re: usr.bin.eat

                My apologies, obviously I was quoting from a source and I meant to include the source which I will do now.

                Here are but a few of the many wine experts who say the same thing as Mr. Rogov:
                "Ian Harris, chief executive at the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, believes female sommeliers have another advantage over their male colleagues: 'This industry has been like the army since it began - it has been the ultimate men's club,' he said. 'That's begun to change and, once it began changing, it did so with growing rapidity. It went from having just a sprinkling of women to a respectable number in a very few years."

                'We find women have better, more sensitive palates than men. For the last five years the top performing students in our diploma course have been women, while last year four of the five top students were female.'

                Here is a link to an article from Wines and Vines, June 2003 that has the summary of the Yale study that pioneered the way for the study later developed by Johns Hopkins, et al. The article is five pages long and also has several quotes by scientists and wine experts who agree that women have more taste buds and are biologically more predisposed to having a greater sense of taste. Also tells you how you can determine if you are a super taster or not.

                As far as the study quoted by Mr. Rogov, I believe those articles would be represented in scholarly journals and sadly not available to the public, which is why we rely on wine scholars and popular magazines to the report on these studies.

                Additionally, there have been no links to scholarly or popular reports on men being better tasters than women. At the very least we can agree that we should not be saying that men are better tasters than women.

                1. re: glazebrookgirl

                  Thanks for the links. These days every journal paper is available on the internet and many are free. The abstracts are often useful to judge whether the paper is decent.

                  I find that many popular articles inflate research results and make very dubious conclusions. So far I've read some papers by one of the authors from Yale, Linda Bartoshuk, and as I expected, the types of studies that she runs aren't really about the ability of subtle taste perception. Rather it's the correlation between taste buds and the perception of pain and bitterness and also loss of sense of taste. The design of such experiments are dogged by psychophysical issues and are in a sense crude measurements.

                  So perhaps a claim that people with a greater than average number of taste buds (so called "supertasters") are more sensitive to the pain caused by capsaicin has some validity, but as for the ability to judge wines? Dubious to me. Given all the other social and cultural issues in play, I'll put nurture over nature.

          3. I firmly believe that a taste for spices indicates....a taste for spices.

            To address the question directly, it seems to me that tolerance for chiles builds with exposure and practice. If I've been eating lots of hot foods, I can tolerate higher "heat" levels than if I've been laying off for a while, and even prefer more heat.

            Also, in my anecdotal experience, my friends who like lots of heat seem unable to appreciate subtle flavors and delicate balance in foods. There seems to be a cause/effect relationship here, but which is cause and which effect I couldn't begin to say.

            3 Replies
            1. re: PDXpat

              I think there is a time and a place for spiciness. To me there is also an 'overboard' point characterized more by 'machoness' as a previous poster indicated.

              I am fond of a subtle backround heat, that stimulates your pulse just slightly. Which I think a product known as Ichimi Togarashi provides.

              1. re: PDXpat

                I follow the experience of your friends - love spicy foods, yet I'm frustratingly unable to pick up delicate nuances and tastes in food and drink. I do know I am a nontaster (very few taste buds) because in HS biology class, I was the only one who could not taste the bitter chemical on a test strip.

                My husband follows the Supertaster criteria to a T - he can't stand coffee, spices, broccoli, mayonnaise, any ethnic dishes. He also has a strong sense of smell (though I don't know if that is a Supertaster trait)

                1. re: swissgirl

                  Seems like when we did that deal with the bitter paper (it's called PTC paper, if I remember correctly), it was to illustrate genetics. The ability to taste or not taste it is hereditary.

                  I could taste the bitter flavor, but I am definitely not a supertaster.

                  Tolerance to spicy foods seems to run in families, too; at least it does in mine. My dad's side of the family has a running joke: Never ask us if something is "too hot," because we'll sit there with tears running down our faces and smoke coming out of our ears and say, "No, it's not that hot." Better ask the other side of the family if you want a report that makes sense.

                  But at the same time, hot for hot's sake is not appreciated on either side of the family. If it's just set-your-hair-on-fire spicy, without any complexity of flavor, forget it.

                  It used to be all about peppers, but I'm starting to appreciate spicy flavors from other sources, like mustard and horseradish. The thing about those as opposed to peppers is that the hotness doesn't linger on because, unlike peppers, there's not a lot of oil involved.

              2. Capsaicin, the active ingredient in chilis, acts like an opiate on your brain chemistry causing an endorphine rush and releasing more dopamine. This gives you a feeling of well-being and activates the reward circuit in the limbic system of the brain.
                That fine line between pain and pleasure. Aaahhhh!
                Nature's little anti-depressants. Perfectly legal drug.
                This is the dumbed-down version as explained to me by a friend who works at at a rehab center and is a specialist in the brain chemistry of addicts.
                So you really can "jones" for some hot and spicy food. People can build up tolerance levels and crave higher and higher "doses." Some people can take hot pepper or leave it, others become addicted - like alcoholics.

                I've got it bad! I grow my own. Carry it with me. Tabasco screen saver on the PC. Red is my favorite color. Hot sauces lined up in the kitchen, dining room, everywhere.
                No intention of joining a 12-Step Program.

                1 Reply
                1. re: MakingSense

                  Unfortunately, for some of us, it doesn't have that effect at all.

                2. Hell no.

                  I love spicy food...love it but there is definately a place for it. To enjoy spicy food only indicates that you like spicy food. There are plenty of places in the Boston area (ahem...ECG) that make up for a ho-hum menu by blasting the heat quotient and daring people to make the trip. I can personally vouch for several people whose mouths water at the thought of a Hell Night meal but who can't be bothered to feed themselves any better than plain rice and overboiled pasta any other night.

                  Anyone who tries to argue that an "elevated palate" can sustain itself on mushy pasta and Prego ("Now with three cheeses and 50% more shelf-stabilized, amorphous blobs of meat product!") Just because that person likes hot sauce will be summarily executed.

                  Heat seekers are thrill seekers.

                  1. I don't think I would say a liking of spicy foods indicates an "elevated palate", but I have noticed that many of those I know who don't like spicy foods are extremely unadventurous, culinarily speaking. It's certainly something for which many can build a tolerance. So I admit to a bias when someone says they 'hate' spicy food -- unless I know better, that usually makes me think they're not that interested in food (which of course can be entirely off-base).

                    On the other hand, I have a brother who is ridiculously on the other side of the spectrum. He is a true chowhound and lives by the mantra "the spicier the better". (He used to joke about opening a restaurant someday called Sniffles.) He once ordered Chinese food from our favorite place "extra extra spicy", and I had to drive him home because his hands were shaking so badly...

                    1. Personally I would think it'd be the opposite. Most people I know who only like spicy food don't have an elevated palette at all. I mean, if you put heat on everything, then you definitely aren't a super-taster.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: uman

                        I'm not sure if elevated palate = super taster, but the only true super taster I know well loves spicy foods. On the other hand, he hates vegetables as they have all sorts of "weird tastes."


                        1. re: Ed Dibble

                          I would say that person is definitely not a super-taster because they prefer only one sensation (hot) to all of the "weird" tastes of vegetables.

                      2. I think it's just what you're accustomed to--either how you were raised, or what you've acquired a taste for.

                        In college I dated a guy from Madras, India. We lived in the dorms so we were pretty much forced to eat bland, mediocre cafeteria food most of the time. He always carried a bottle of this incendiary spice mix that he dumped on everything to make it palatable. I used to tease him that he'd burned off most of his taste buds, so he had to make his food blazing-hot just so he could taste it--but I think it was just a matter what he was used to.

                        1. For some people without a sense of smell, much subtlety in their food is lost. My husband is one, and he requires more heat, acid, and spice in his food to help make it interesting to eat. (Cooking for someone like this is a constant challenge.)

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: sheiladeedee

                            Btw, this also applies to many people who suffer from chronic post-nasal drip or gustatory rhinitis*. Also explains why some people need more salt, as salt amplifies other taste sensations.

                            * The phenomenon of having a runny nose during or after eating.

                          2. I think the true issue here is what "spice" means to us.

                            For my Irish-American mother, it means "too much seasoning."
                            For my boyfriend's old roommate, "Nipples" (really), it meant multiple habeneros in everything he cooked.
                            For my friend Adam, it means Tabasco and Cholula on everything.

                            To my boyfriend and I (the Chowhounders), it means appropriate placement of heat. We both LOVE hot food and will more often than not use hot sauces, peppers and spices to give things a bit of a kick. However, we still want to TASTE the food. If all you're doing is sweating, swearing and guzzling milk, I'd say you completely miss the point of heat.

                            I also think heat can be culturally appropriate. Living in the upper Midwest, it's HARD to find Mexican food with ANY sort of kick to it. The people around here consider ketchup hot, I'm afraid. It's when we find ourselves at the Don Pablo's and Chevy's restaurants with co-workers/family that we wish they'd incorporate some more appropriate heat into their dishes.

                            1. Some people have a higher tolerance for heat than others- perhaps part is genetic but part of it has to be one's culture or what you have become accustomed to. We all know that most ethnic restaurants in America downplay the heat level- however this can become a problem because sometimes I've made assumptions that a restaurant has done this- only to find that I have been WRONG- OY VEY. (When I can't taste the food and tears are running down my eyes, it is TOO hot!:} ) There is no shame in admitting you cannot tolerate as much heat as a native Thai person- suck it up- food is meant to be enjoyed. I do wish however that somehow we could have a uniform standard among all restaurants in NYC for "mild", "medium" and "hot" as they simply vary so much. I suppose the safe bet is to order mild or medium as you can always add more heat later.

                              1. but lets say someone gets a super, super, atomic, you-wish-you-were-dead, hot sauce...doesn't it just kill the flavor of the dish? i.e. how can you enjoy something when the heat demolishes the taste of the food? or is the pain the joy? for each their own, but i just don't understand when people make things soooo hot that you see them hurting at the table.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: adkim

                                  If you have high tolerance for heat, heat doesn't demolish flavor so much. I used to think Tabasco had no flavor. Now that I practically dunk my eggs in it, I think it has a rather nice flavor (and I can now taste the eggs).

                                2. "Is an aversion to spiciness damning in your opinion?"

                                  It's all a matter of trust. No, I wouldn't rely on the opinions of someone who doesn't like spicy food. I prefer to rely on the opinions of other Chowhounds who have similar tastes to mine. It's not a question of right or wrong, but finding people I am likely to agree with.

                                  1. People who like spicy food are better lovers.....

                                    1. As a lover of spiciness, I've found that I have little ability to appreciate subtlety in food. If it's an herb or spice I like, I tend to want lots of it. I prefer to be slapped upside the head with flavor. Food "experts" I've met tend to view me with scorn, since so many seem to hold the opinion that food is "sophisticated" only if it has a mix of subtle flavors rather than strong primary flavors.

                                      1. I revived this thread after a recent meal that left me a little frustrated. A bunch of us were at a random takeout spot ordering sandwiches and the sandwich guy offers to put chili flakes in there. Everyone said yes except me, and they all made slightly condescending jokes about my lack of tolerance/palate.

                                        Here's the thing: I love spicy foods. Granted, I can't handle as much heat as someone who grew up eating chilies, but I regularly eat Thai, Indian and Malaysian foods (even those dishes with the little pepper symbol next to them).

                                        I just don't want spicy *all the time*, just like I don't want sweet or salty all the time. Why is it seen as sophisticated to put chilies on everything, but we look down on someone who drowns everything in ketchup?

                                        4 Replies
                                        1. re: piccola

                                          Sophisticated? Really? I think the person who above who said it was a macho thing had it the closest. You should tell whoever gives you lip to piss off. :o)

                                          Oh, and whoever made that old comment above about supertasters is wrong. I happen to be one (it's actually kind of annoying sometimes as it is correlated to a heightened sense of smell and I get regular headaches from others' perfume) and my tolerance for heat is pretty high. It's all conditioning.

                                          1. re: adrienne156

                                            It seems to be a sign of "foodiness" for some, maybe because it allows you to eat more "authentic" foreign foods. But you're right - for others, it's definitely a "mine's bigger than yours" kind of pride.

                                            1. re: piccola

                                              For some reason jfood remembers reading or hearing something over the last few weeks (can't cite resourse sorry) that there was high correlation between estrogen and heightened sense of smell. was wondering if anyone heard this as well and where it might be?

                                              OTOH jfood is not a heat fan. yet when he was in singapore he mentioned it to the local business colleagues and they were careful in the first course. bythe time hte last course rolled around jfood was well into the heat scale, even past one of his indian colleagues. jfood guess it can also depend on the type of heat..

                                              1. re: jfood

                                                Yes, many studies have found that a woman's sense of smell is estrogen-dependant. Her sense of smell is most acute when estrogen levels are high (esp. ovulation), and less acute when levels are lower.

                                        2. No! The level of heat that one can take is personal (however I do it as much for the rush [i.e. pain endorphins] as for the flavor).
                                          To me an "elevated" palate is more of an educated palate such that you can distinguish subtle differences in cuisine. When I first got into wine in my early twenties I ordered a glass of Cabernet out at a restaurant with friends. It was brought to me and when I tasted it I liked it but it wasn't Cab but Zin I thought? I told the waitress and indeed there had been a mixup and my drink was replaced (with a Cab). Everyone at the table was very impressed.

                                          5 Replies
                                          1. re: Chinon00

                                            Had a similar experience when I ordered an Armagnac and was brought a Calvados. The mistake was obvious to me with the first whiff of apples before I even tasted it, but it impressed the heck out of the rubes - er, I mean colleagues - I was eating with (this was a business dinner, not a gathering of my usual foodie crowd).

                                            1. re: BobB

                                              As an otolarygologist, our specialty is consulted about disorders of taste and smell. In reading this thread there are some misconceptions about "taste" and palate. There is a big difference between the taste experience, and the per cent of that experience that is mediated through taste buds on the tongue. As much as 90-95% of the taste experience of foods can be due to the olfactory qualities of the food rather than its interaction with the taste buds. We see this in patients who have had disease or injury to the olfactory nerve, whose nerve endings are in the vault of the nasal cavity. Their presenting complaint much of the time is that they have lost their sense of taste. If women have a superior sense of smell(and it seems to me they do), that would translate into a more sensitive palate.(perhaps an evolved safety factor as prehistoric food preparers).

                                              I was very intrigued by the reference to Mark Zoller and the Senomyx Corp. It is worth googling to see what this bunch is up to.

                                              1. re: LRunkle

                                                I stand corrected.

                                                So, what does it equate to when one is overly sensitive to scents (for lack of a better term) and has more than the normal amount of tastebuds?

                                                1. re: adrienne156

                                                  In terms of smell, that is hypernosmia. But you can have a specific acuity for certain smells, and that would be a selective hypernosmia. A smell deficit for certain smells (otherwise normal) would be a selective anosmia.

                                                  The word for someone with an acuity in taste is hypertaster. This can be due to more taste buds per square centimeter, or heightened relays to the brain that register taste. Acuities in both smell and taste can be developed beyond what one is born with. That's the case with most of the great wine tasters: it's part physiology, part training. And, I'm guessing you are a woman, so your estrogen/hormonal makeup (see above) is also a factor.

                                                  1. re: maria lorraine

                                                    Although I don't really like talking about personal stuff as it sometimes comes off wrong, the abnormal number of taste buds is something that I was unaware of until a doctor noted it in passing while doing an oral exam. I've always been very sensitive to differences in flavors - even from a very young age (I could definitely be described as one of those finicky eaters) - and after discussing it with the doctor, our conclusion was: supertaster.

                                                    Regardless thank you for the answer. And, yes, I am a woman.