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Dec 14, 2006 01:10 PM

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:

                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.