Pleasure through signalling

By Razib Khan | August 9, 2011 1:51 am

As some of you know, I have a problem. An addiction that is. For most of the year I stock up on fresh habanero pepper. Usually I try to limit myself to 1-2 peppers per meal…but when not in the company of others who may civilize me I can lose control and eat more than half a dozen in a sitting. After the first few peppers they just don’t taste as spicy, and I suppose psychologically I am under the illusion that enough peppers will bring back the pleasure high of a few moments earlier. I developed this habit not through cultural inculcation. Rather, when I went off to college and no one supervised me I began to eat more and more peppers, and developed an extremely high threshold of tolerance. By the end of college I began to raid my parents’ thai peppers at home to the point where they complained that I always left their stock depleted before going back to school. At this point I can drink tabasco sauce like gatorade.

But the different parts of the gastrointestinal system adapt differently. When I “habanero gorge” I develop extreme pain in my bowels in a few hours, and of course there are issues the next day. Over the years I’ve poked around the literature on possible correlations between pepper consumption and stomach cancer, or the anti-pathogenic properties of peppers. I’m pretty sure I’m well beyond the limit of normal consumption in any of these studies.

My primary motivation in consuming peppers is pure hedonism, as can be attested by the fact that my consumption is constrained by the presence of others. But there are clear social consequences to eating extremely spicy food. People take notice when you pile on crushed read peppers onto pizza, or pull out a habanero at In-N-Out Burger. At nice restaurants you sometimes get well known for being the guy who likes the habanero paste lathered onto his beef, to the point where new servers might drop by to gawk. There can be a clear element of social signalling in consuming very spicy foods. In short, people can think you are a “badass.” Of course actually I’m a cheerful and self-effacing individual! (granted, with a casual tendency to verbally bludgeon people)

I thought of this when Amos pointed me to this report in Discover on a hot sauce made from Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper. According to some reports this pepper is about 1 order of magnitude spicier than habaneros! (in scoville units) I’m not totally unfamiliar with such levels of spice. A few years ago I tried a bunch of hot sauces, and I also ordered pure capsaicin, the active ingredient in peppers. If you want a hot sauce that is very hot, I’d go with Dave’s Insanity. The pure capsaicin was crazy spicy. Really I got overwhelmed with one drop. What you’re really supposed to do with that stuff is make sauces with a drop here and there. I did do that. But what I prefer is to take fresh habaneros and make sauce out of that. A sauce shouldn’t just be diluted spice, it should have other flavors. I like habaneros, cilantro, oil, vinegar, and water. It seems that beyond a certain level of heat you can’t really experience any more sensation. The spicier the quality, the less quantity you can take in. So the subjective feel of a tiny drop of capsaicin can be equivalent to a whole habanero, despite there differences on the scoville and physical scales.

Below are two charts showing differences on the scoville scale. I grabbed the data from Wikipedia (with some averaging):

Image Credit: Ryan Bushby


Comments (31)

  1. Darkseid

    Is there a biological cause for the apparent correlatiOn between intelligence and liking spicy stuff? It seems theres a definite affinity for hot sauce amongst the programmer/science community.

  2. Ă…se

    I’m thinking you should put this in a survey. Gender differences? (signalling factor), IQ, original food culture, etc etc etc.

  3. This whole post makes me very uncomfortable!

  4. vg

    I have a friend who’s from Nagaland in the Northeast of India and he has some real badass chilli peppers. Just one mg of that sauce and I have to gulp down 10 bottles of ice water. It’s called raja mircha back there. It’s extremely tasty though, I’m told, once you can get over the spiciness.

  5. dufu

    So even a bhut jolokia wouldn’t faze you?

    I tried one once and it was pretty close to what this guy went through.

  6. @6, does he puke? If not, I’ll watch the video.

  7. JonF

    Trouble is, now you’re starting to max out on what you can get by the time you’re hitting pure capsaicin [verb choice intentional]. If only there was some way for you to be able to endogenously overexpress your oral TrpV1 receptors you might be able to re-capture your sensitivity to peppers without suffering the GI consequences later. Ah, the frontiers of genetic engineering!

  8. Michael Johnson

    @7, I watched it, and there’s no puking, just pain

  9. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    @EcoPhysioMichelle: He doesn’t puke. And I see in the related videos that taping yourself eating a bhut jolokia seems to be a thing.

  10. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    Whoa. One of the related videos is a woman eating a bunch of [alleged] bhut jolokias and grinding them into her eyes. Maybe she has some mutation and isn’t sensitive to the spiciness…

    Bonus: The news anchor in that clip is former Discover Web intern Smriti Rao.

  11. Handle

    Dave’s has a Jolokia sauce that is my new favorite. I’m very close to you in regards to spice consumption tolerance and addictive tendencies, and this sauce is definitely at my threshold. The taste is not quite as good as fresh normal peppers, but I really enjoy mixing this as a “kicker” in a fresh sauce.

    Here’s one of my favorite recipes. If you have a Nordicware Microwave Popcorn Popper (or something equivalent, though I think it’s the best), take a tablespoon of canola oil, about as much salt (adjust to your tastes), and a single drop of the Ghost Pepper Sauce. Add your kernels and mix thoroughly. Depending on the air filter and fan in your microwave, you may or may not fill your house with an aroma that will smell delightful to you, but approach mace or CS riot gas to the less spice-tolerant. But the finished product is amazingly delicious spicy popcorn.

  12. Naughtius Maximus

    I thought the Indian Ghost Pepper was the hottest going.
    Has anyone tried a dash of tabasco in their Corona’s (beer)?

  13. ackbark

    Once at a farmer’s market I bought a couple little things that looked like habaneros. The guy who sold them to me looked at me like I was insane which I should have taken as a clue.

    I chopped them up and through them in a salsa and the effect was –it wasn’t like a normal spiciness in any way. It was more like nerve gas. I was overcome with a sort of intense nausea and vertigo and violent ‘steaming’ sensation through my whole body. It was like I could feel areas of the surface of my skin violently spewing out some kind of gas like out of a steam vent.

    Also it was really spicy and fried every part of my GI tract during it’s ten minute journey. (like Charlie Sheen on a bender in my bowels).

    Anyone else ever run into this weird pepper?

  14. Naughtius Maximus

    The Guatemalan Insanity Pepper? A fox with the voice of Johnny Cash didn’t talk to you by any chance?

  15. devlyn

    I, too, am a chile-head. One of my favorite sauces is Secret Aardvark Habanero Hot Sauce, which is made locally here in Portland. I know the owners and buy it in bulk (I was going through the 10oz bottles too quickly). Give it a try the next time you’re in Oregon… they have a huge following outside the state, and people have been known to order cases for themselves. Not only is it spicy, but it’s incredibly tasty, too!

  16. Miley Cyrax

    So pepper spray is actually toned down capsaicin? How kind of law enforcement.

    I get a sort of kick, a high from the spiciness. Once you take the red pill and start adding spiciness to all of your foods, non-spicy foods can seem dull and bland. So you have no choice but to keep adding.

    I’ve always found it counterintuitive that cultures from warm weather climates have spicier food than those of cold weather climates (historically, I suppose spices have acted as preservatives)–but who wants to be hot and sweating even more from eating spicy foods in already hot weather?

  17. if it’s dry the sweating cools u down. also the functional explanation is usually that spices are bacteriacides.

  18. Ian

    I was vaguely aware of the fact that I was slowly building up my tolerance, year by year, since childhood. But what really made me realise my progression was when I started keeping a record of how hot I ordered food at Thai restaurants. We frequent a few Thai restaurants in town, and since I could never remember what number I wanted at which restaurant, I made a note in my phone. I gradually noticed that the food wasn’t hot enough after a while, so I bumped the number up. And then even that wasn’t hot enough. I also noticed that the Mexican restaurants weren’t making their salsas as hot as they used to be. Then it dawned on me that I was the problem…

    Honestly though, I’m no fan of hotness for its own sake. The Scotch Bonnet may be hotter than the habanero, but the real appeal to me is the taste. And I always prefer fermented pepper sauces to fresh peppers. Though honestly, to me, the biggest problem with cutting up fresh peppers is that my fingers inevitably ends up too close to my eyes…

  19. banerjee

    My personal experience is that food tastes really bland when the temperature reaches 40C+ without some “jhaal” added (hotness == “garam” is not really the right description). Green chilies with subtle flavors are best for me but others prefer red chilies which are less flavorful.

  20. gcochran

    Even Freud couldn’t be wrong all the time- clearly, there is a death wish.

  21. Nandalal Rasiah

    have you tried making chilis/stews with pickled habaneros? the flavor seems concentrated to the point where you don’t miss having multiple fresh ones. I certainly don’t have your tolerance but a night of szechuan hot pot produces substantial gut discomfort.

    I had some Dave’s Insanity. I momentarily hallucinated.

  22. Justin Giancola

    even banana peppers give me problems…

  23. I must agree with you on the Dave’s Insanity sauce – out of this world hot./ I did not think that it would get to me (like you I have a very high tolerance) but I put about a tsp of this on some eggs one morning and thought I was going to have a stroke it took me so by surprise. Lovely stuff 🙂 I have haberneros (flame broilers), Hungarian chilis (hot), Apache Chilis (medium mild), jalapenos (munching chilis) and a couple of others growing in my garden this year (6 plants of each)

  24. for what it’s worth, i love the fresh green taste of thai. i just wish thai were spicier.

  25. Brent Michael Krupp

    “I’m a cheerful and self-effacing individual” is what all the serious badasses say anyway. 🙂

    I’ve had the experience of enjoying spicy Mexican food but finding spicy Thai inedible while my Thai girlfriend at the time (this was a *long* time ago) enjoyed that same Thai food but thought spicy Mexican food was inedible. Makes me wonder if not all spiciness of the same scoville level is actually the same in terms of building tolerance to it.

  26. Handle

    @Miley Cyrax-17, Razib Khan-18:

    I thought the warm weather-culture-spiciness explanation worked the other way; those are just the environments where most peppers grow best without greenhouses or modern horticultural varieties, and people will tend to cook with whatever tasty things are conveniently available.

    In colder countries, plant groups like Brassicaceae – with intense mustard-oil generators like horseradish and wasabi – become the “spice” of choice that serves a similar culinary function – with a few horseradish-fiend equivalents of Razib always floating around.

  27. Zach Singer

    I once read that spicy foods release endorphins and that one can become addicted to them. This addiction may further compel the desire to beat ones tolerance. A few years back when I was quitting smoking I grew fond of a chai with black peppercorns that I had at home because of the slight bite that it added (both in heat and tannins). But when I visited my folks in Ventura their chai lacked this quality. Fortunately my father keeps three kinds of cayenne in the house, a dash of African cayenne will make that cup of tea taste like the surface of the sun (for taste include Mexican cayenne as well).

    Also, there is a Final Fantasy VII themed – tequila based drink called the Bum Rush which includes jalapenos that is pretty fantastic, it’s pretty much the only way I can drink tequila.

  28. I_Affe

    A similar signaling is present in the craft beer scene. A lot of brewers try to make the hoppiest beers possible. A lot of drinkers seek out, hype, and impress each other by drinking them. Hops can overwhelm the other flavors in the beer and make it, to mine and other average taste buds, undrinkable, but some people love those things, e.g. Pliny the Elder.

  29. Dallas

    Razib, do you find that you need your food to be hotter in temperature now too? I imagine if you underexpress your TrpV1 receptors that you may not be able to feel the satisfaction of the actual heat of your food either. Or maybe I’m being naive about thermoreception, I’m no expert.

  30. monarda

    I also heard, from one of the world’s foremost authorities (then at the Monell Chemical senses institute) on hot tastes that peppers release endorphins — the normal curve for liking tastes is a u-shaped one. The taste for hot things, however, goes up and up and then abruptly crashes in a straight line, indicating that the sensation for “hot” is not taste but pain. The scientist, whom I met socially, and my husband engaged in a pepper eating contest to see who could eat the hottest. The scientist suffered from Crohn’s but he said that hot peppers didn’t affect it. He told us that the hottest cuisine in the world is the Hungrian. But my son’s Hungarian pediatrician disagreed when I told him this. He said the hottest was the Romanian.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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