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You might know that spicy food can make your mouth feel like it's on fire, but how does it do that?

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Some people love the taste of spicy food, and some don’t!

I love it, but Squeaks doesn’t. If you’ve ever taken a bite of a spicy food, whether accidentally or on purpose, you know that it can make your mouth and tongue feel like they’re on fire.

But that burning feeling on your tongue doesn’t have anything do with how hot or cold the food really is. Even if you take a spicy pepper right out of the refrigerator and it feels cold to your fingers, when you bite into it, it’ll taste spicy and hot! It all has to do with that special piece of muscle in our mouths that helps us enjoy food. [Squeaks squeaks] Right, Squeaks, our tongues!

Now, you might already know that the reason we can taste different flavors, like whether a food is sweet or sour, is because of special parts on our tongues called taste buds. Taste buds are so small you can’t even see them, but they’re made up of parts that are even tinier. And the most important tiny parts of our taste buds are called receptors.

Receptors help our bodies sense things that happen in the world around us. In our taste buds, their job is to help us sense the flavors in our food. Whenever you put something in your mouth, your taste receptors send a signal to your brain that helps you figure out what it tastes like.

So if you take a bite of a cookie, let’s say, the taste receptors on your tongue tell your brain “Hey, that’s sweet!” Your taste receptors can sense five different flavors: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and a savory, meaty taste called umami. [Squeaks squeaks] That’s true! “Spicy” isn’t on the list of flavors we can sense with our taste receptors! But I can still tell when I’m eating something that’s spicy. My tongue is definitely sensing it in the food I’m eating.

That’s because there are other kinds of receptors on our tongues — not just the ones that taste flavors! Some receptors sense things like heat and pain. They help keep us safe because they stop us from eating foods right out of the oven that are too hot and might hurt the insides of our mouths.

But spicy foods can trick these receptors! There’s something in foods like peppers and mustard that turns on the receptors that normally tell you when your food is too hot. When these receptors touch something spicy, they think it’s hot even though it isn’t, and send a signal to your brain that says, “We’re eating something hot!” So, you feel like your tongue is burning, even if the food you’re eating is spicy salsa that just came out of the refrigerator.

Spicy foods don’t burn your tongue at all. They’re just tricking the receptors into telling your brain that it’s hot inside your mouth. Whether you’re the type of person who likes spicy food can depend on lots of different things, like how often you eat them or how old you are.

If you eat spicy food a lot, you might like it more because your tongue can get used to the burning feeling. And if you’re younger, you might not like spicy foods as much as an older adult, because your tongue is more sensitive, which makes things taste stronger. But whether you like your food spicy hot — or not — you can thank the receptors on your tongue for helping you sense the spice in your food!

Thanks for joining us! If you want to keep learning and having fun with Squeaks and me, hit the subscribe button, and we’ll see you next time here at the Fort!