Looking for the hot stuff: the science behind our love of chilli

Turn it up a notch – things are about to get fiery

When you think about what they do to us – the sweats, the shakes, the pain, the tears – our love of chillies seems incomprehensible. So why do we keep coming back for more? On a quest for the answers to all your burning questions we went:

So, what’s in chilli to make it burn?

Most ingredients make us think of taste and smell but chilli brings a third sense into the mix: touch. This feeling is caused by capsaicin; a component that causes a similar reaction to heat because it travels to the brain through the same nerves as touch. Feel like your mouth’s on fire? Well, that’s because your brain is telling you it is.

But, chilli is chilli… right?

Well, yes and no. If you can be sure of one thing, it’s that chillies are hot, however, depending on where and how they’re grown, each variety can have a different taste; sweet, fruity, citrusy, smoky – the list goes on. And their characteristics don’t stop there; chillies differ in how quickly you feel their burn and when they choose to unleash it. Take jalapeños – these green fireballs hit the tip of your tongue and lips... but don't expect them to stick around for long, whereas with the habanero for example, you’ll feel it where it hurts the most – right at the back of your throat.

Hold on, why do some love chilli and others don’t?

Chilli works by activating pain receptors in the tongue. Like a warning sign, pain is our body’s way of protecting us from harm, making our desire for heat even more perplexing. Exposure to capsaicin over a long period of time can lessen its effects – one study found that subjects who preferred hotter food were more likely to seek exciting, adrenaline-inducing experiences (sensation-seekers). There’s also evidence to suggest that some people are born with pain receptors that are more sensitive to capsaicin.

Think it’s time to feel the burn? Us too:

Spicy vegetarian chilli wraps

Eggs Florentine chilli pizza

Dark chocolate, chilli and ginger squares

Barbecued corn with chilli and herb butter

Chilli and lime-marinated mango with mint sugar

Crab, chilli, lemon and asparagus wholewheat spaghetti

And hey, you don’t have to stop the chilli talk there. Ever wondered what kind of spice you would be (haven’t we all?)? Take our personality quiz to find out.