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Spicy Foods: To Eat, or Not to Eat

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With spicy foods, pain is pleasure.

No, really. The concept even comes with a term: benign masochism. 

“‘Benign masochism’ is when people come to enjoy pain,” explains Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences, whose research focuses on cultural psychology and humans’ relationship with food. “And that pain is virtually harmless, always. But their bodies think of it as harmful, and so the body rejects hot pepper because it feels full of memories of being harmed, where in fact, they’re not.”

Which leads to the messy subject at hand: Are these spicy foods—regularly consumed by billions globally—healthy or harmful? 

The answer might be nestled somewhere in the middle.

Rozin explains that if there’s a negative response to high levels of heat in a dish, it’s usually the body tricking itself into marking it as harmful—like a smoke detector jolting to life just from burnt toast—even if it’s actually not on fire. It is, he says, “the body’s response that can produce damage.” For example, a blister may show up as a response from the body, and not because of the hot agent itself. He further points to chili-pepper-eating cultures like Mexico that maintain a reasonably high life expectancy.

Actual harm, though, could come from extremely high levels of heat, he says, or it could exacerbate a mouth sore. But otherwise, there’s little evidence that chili peppers do any damage to the body, beyond making some symptoms feel worse. Hence, the “benign” half of the term.

As for why people build this painful habit in the first place: Social influence, he says, is what makes a person want to try a spicy dish a second time—because they see another person doing it, and feel compelled to join in. Over time, the mind and body tolerate the spice and even learn to feel pleasure from it; he likens it to someone wanting to cry during a movie or feel their heart pound on a roller coaster ride.

It’s this concept and more that Rozin recently explored in a workshop with students, “The Psychology of Taste: Chili Peppers,” at the Penn Museum on Feb. 4. Rozin’s expertise in the subject derives from field research done in Mexico in the 1970s, conducting experiments with people who lived in the villages where chili peppers originated. 

His interest in hosting the event at Penn Museum stemmed from new local interest in diverse food tastes.

“We’re in a period of greatly expanding taste in the U.S.—and Penn’s campus, in particular,” he says. “Many more of our students now like spicy foods than did 50 years ago. We’re not a spicy food country; we have a big Mexican input, which is very spicy, and some Asian from Korea or India, but the majority-white culture of America was Northern European and not a spicy-eating culture. It’s an acquired taste for most people, whereas Mexicans and Koreans acquire the taste in childhood.”

What’s the nutrition?

At a glance, says Family Food, LLC Registered Dietician Carlie Saint-Laurent, the fruit of a pepper is quite nutritious, loaded with vitamin C and vitamin A, while low in calories and fat. However, peppers become a lot more caloric in a flake form and, when eating a large quantity of these flakes—approximately 20 tablespoons of flakes—can have adverse effects.

But chili peppers and other spicy foods like cayenne and curcumin, says Saint-Laurent, also trigger the thermic effect of food, thanks to the presence of capsaicin. That effect expends a greater number of calories; however, the overall effect on metabolism—even for people who eat spicy foods regularly—is thought to be minimal. 

And while these spicy foods can often be paired with fatty meals like a pork burrito or hot wings, there are many more spicy dishes that could be considered good for you.

“There are plentiful piquant courses commonly found in the Caribbean, Asian, and African cultures like mapo tofu, a popular Chinese dish, or Jamaican jerk chicken, which are leaner in protein, nutrient-dense, and satisfy guidelines to be categorized as spicy,” Saint-Laurent says. “Remember, it is the capsaicin compound that helps boost metabolism, so if you’re going to consume spicy foods for its metabolic purpose, it is still pivotal to consume a diet that is well-balanced and diverse in food groups—as opposed to eating hot wings all day—to obtain optimal health.”

Saint-Laurent also recommends that people who have heartburn, gastro-esophageal reflux disease, or are pregnant with morning sickness avoid spicy foods.

What’s the gastrointestinal effect?

Spicy foods’ effects go beyond state of mind or nutritional content, of course. Many might be reminded of a churning stomach. But, how much spicy foods influence gastrointestinal stress is still up for debate in a still-emerging field of study surrounding diet. 

“I think it comes down to, most of the time, individual patients in terms of their susceptibility [to spicy foods],” says Nitin Ahuja, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine. “There is evidence that people with a diagnosis of [irritable bowel syndrome] tend to do poorly with spicy foods. It will exacerbate their symptoms. But there is a counterargument that spicy foods taken in small to moderate quantities over a chronic timeline will actually lead to increased pain threshold.”

In reference is capsaicin, which he says is used as a supplement in several disciplines of medicine, but especially when dealing with chronic pain—used as a topical therapy and an oral supplement. It mediates neuropathic pain, mitigating pain communicated by the nerves—easing, for example, abdominal or corporeal pains.

“I don’t think it’s a game-changer in terms of therapy, but it is used as an adjunct,” he explains. “And for that reason, there is no clean answer in terms of what [spicy foods’] effects are on health.”

Other points of note: chili-pepper-laden dishes can tend to be accompanied by rich or fatty foods—like that pork burrito—and misplace blame for some discomfort. But, capsaicin can, Ahuja says, accelerate motility through the gastrointestinal tract, causing abdominal pain, diarrhea, or nausea. 

As for ulcers, he says not to worry about spicy foods causing them in the stomach—a popular misconception. 

“The most common cause of ulcers, by far, would be [nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs], like ibuprofen, and H. pylori, a common bug that’s more common in the developing world but does exist here, too. And that’s usually asymptomatic.”

Even those with an ulcer, he says, can safely consume spicy foods—unless their body is telling them otherwise.

Still, he concludes, more study is required to better understand the effects of spicy foods on the body—and the role food plays in our health. 

“Unfortunately, diet doesn’t get as much attention as it should, from a formalized research standpoint, so a lot of it is predicated on what is out there anecdotally,” he says. “That’s a caveat.” 

By Brandon Baker

Spicy Foods: To Eat, or Not to Eat was originally published on the University of Pennsylvania website.