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Some people can eat raw jalapeños like they're apples. Why do some people have a high tolerance for spicy food while others can't stand it?

Hosted by:Hank Green
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Hank: You’ve probably noticed that people have wildly different tolerances when it comes to spicy food. Your friend can eat an entire bowl of chili -- doused with extra hot sauce -- while you, or say, me, maybe we have to send that bowl back to the kitchen, and order something little less spicy. Like buttered noodles. What gives?

Well, scientists don’t know for sure what allows some people to gulp down habanero salsa like it’s water, but it’s probably a mix of several factors. 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.

TRPV1 is a little protein that opens up in response to physical temperature, but also when fiery molecules like capsaicin bind to it, which is why a bite of jalapeño will make your tongue feel like it’s 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 a lot of capsaicin -- the compound that makes hot peppers spicy -- will have to eat even more capsaicin 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.

So just hit it with that sriracha! Another theory suggests that it’s not that spicy food burns less for some people -- instead, it’s that some people... like the burn. If you 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... that’s what they love about it!

One psychologist calls this phenomenon benign masochism. Like a roller coaster ride, it’s a safe way to do something dangerous. 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 it’s most likely to be because you’ve simply learned to enjoy that tongue-tingling.

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