You’ve probably noticed that people have widely different tolerances, when it comes to spicy food. Your friend can eat an entire bowl of chilli doused with extra hot sauce, while you say or me, maybe we have to send that bowl back to the kitchen and order something little less spicy. Well, scientists don’t know for sure what allows some people to gulp down habanero salsa.
For one thing, some people may simply be born with less sensitivity to spice. That’s because spiciness is detected by a sensory receptor called TRPV1, is a little protein that opens up in response to physical temperature, but also when fiery molecules like capsiacin bind to it which is why a bite of jalapeño will make your tongue feel like its on fire.
Scientists know that gene sequences that produce the TRPV1 Protein vary from person to person so it could be that certain versions of the receptor are more or less responsive than others. There’s also the matter of how much you use your TRPV1 receptors.
Lots of studies have documented a kind of desensitization effect, where people who eat alot of capsiacin — the compound that makes hot peppers spicy —will have to eat even more capsiacin in order to taste the same level of spiciness. So people might have higher spice tolerances because as they eat spicy food more regularly, they literally aren’t feeling as much burn.
Another theory suggests that its not that spicy food burns less for some people, instead, its that some people like the burn. If you can grow up eating tamales or curry, it could be that you simply learn to enjoy the sensation because of repeated exposure or the burn itself could be the real draw.
After all, ask any chili-head if they can feel the heat and they most certainly tell you that they can.. One psychologist calls this phenomenon benign masochism.
One study has even linked this to personality type. Among a group of mostly white college students, people who reported liking spicy foods were more likely to be sensation-seekers.
So, if you have a high spice tolerance, it could be partly because of your genes or because you’re on a constant diet of tabasco sauce that lowers your sensitivity. But, its most likely to be because you’ve simply learned to enjoy that tongue-tingling.