How does being used to spicy foods work?


More specifically:
Why, when a person from a region that typically eats spicy food eats something you think is hot, do they say “this isn’t spicy” even if there’s like 5 jalapenos (exaggeration.) Can they taste the spice but they’re just used to it and are being mean to my caucasian tastebuds, or can they literally not register any spice. If the second one, how does this work? If the prior, how does being used to spicy things work?

Edit: on reflection, 5 jalapenos clearly isnt an exaggeration.

Edit 2: I’m talking MY caucasian tastebuds. Me being from Europe where spice is not everywhere. I’m not saying white people can’t be used to spice. (That’s sort of what I was asking anyway, is spice tolerance nature or nurture)

In: Biology

after repeated exposure to capsaicin (the spicy) the receptors in your mouth begin to stop responding as much to it, as nerves tend to do when constantly stimulated (downregulation). Basically the nerve is sort of saying “ok ok we get it turn it off” and adds a phosphate group to one part of the receptor and the end result is you’ve (temporarily) become less able to sense the spiciness.

This process is reversible, and you will eventually return to the same spicy food tolerance as you started with if you quit eating spicy food for a while.

So no, below a certain threshold the person actually cannot feel the heat as much. But the person will still seek spicy food if they begin to enjoy the hot sensation, and will need spicier food for the same effect now that they have a higher tolerance.

Anecdotally, I am caucasian and enjoy spicy food. It doesn’t really matter what area of the world you are from, you can get used to it. It’s just that you probably didn’t start getting used to it when you were five like people from some areas often would. The whole white people can’t handle spice thing is just one of those white people stereotypes we all kind of laugh off even though they’re kinda ignorant.

When they say “this isn’t spicy” what they are saying is “this is not intolerably burning my mouth, and I’ve had spicier.”

As with most tastes, people build up tolerances. Think of someone drinking whiskey for the first time vs the 1,000th time. Or bitter flavors; children hate them but adults are much more open to it.

Likewise, ‘spice” is basically a chemical irritant put out by plants to keep the wrong animal from eating it. Humans didn’t evolve to eat those plants, and so feel the irritation. But if we keep doing it a lot, the nerve endings start to transmitting less of the signal. So if you eat a lot, you build up tolerance.

In cultures where people eat a lot of spicy foods, the adults are all eating spicy food, the food is made available to children, and children generally try the food. Many cultures don’t make separate meals for kids after a fairly young age, so if the kids want to eat, they need to eat foods with at least some spice in it, and so start building up at least a little tolerance from a young age. Anyone from anywhere can do the same.



I think the desensitization occurs in the brain, at least to some extent. I know a person whose mouth became numb on one side due to a brain injury. At first, the numb half of the mouth could tolerate pretty much any level of spiciness because it couldn’t feel anything. Meanwhile, the other half was normal, able to tolerate something hotter than jalapeños but not quite as hot as habañeros.

Over time, the numb half of the mouth slowly regained sensations. Early in the process, mild spices like black pepper or mild hot sauce were enough to be uncomfortable to this half of the mouth despite it still being generally numb. But in the same bite of food, the normal half of the mouth couldn’t detect much spiciness at all.

After a couple of years, the numb side of the mouth became increasingly capable of detecting other sensations like texture, temperature, etc. However, as more and more spicy food was eaten, that side of the mouth was slowly able to handle more spiciness. AFAIK it still hasn’t reached the heat levels of the other half of the mouth.

It was the same tongue, mouth, and nerve endings, but there was different brain matter interpreting the signals. The brain’s capacity to handle heat seemed to evolve just like a baby or child’s does.

PS – Of course, this is just an anecdote, but interesting nonetheless.



Obviously most of the comments are spot on about habituation, but I’d just like to add that there is evidence that a genetic contribution plays a role too. Some people can be classified as “strong tasters,” and some people as “weak tasters.” People who are weak tasters tend to seek out and prefer very flavorful foods to get the stimulation they crave from their food. I am almost certain I fall into this group, because even though I’m Caucasian I greatly prefer super strong tasting foods—spicy curries, strong pickled foods, egregious amounts of salt in everything. The more potent and spicy my food the better.

Edit to add more info: [Harvard article on super tasters vs non tasters]( . About halfway down the article is where they start discussing genetic contributions to taste.



Just like with everything else in life, it is possible to build up a tolerance against capsaicin (the molecule responsible for that spicy sensation in your mouth). Basically, the receptors in your tongue kinda get used to it, and don’t get triggered as often.

Also, 5 jalapeños? an exaggeration? pffffft *laughs in mexican*

Give someone who’s not used to carbonated sodas a can of Sprite and watch them recoil at the initial taste, kinda has a sharpness if you’re not used to it. If you’re used to Sprite or sodas you can anticipate the bite, sweetness, and bubbles, but that comes from repeated exposure. Kinda have to enjoy some part of the experience to do it enough to build a tolerance though.

I know it’s a joke, but general spice tolerance has nothing to do with race, but more cultural exposure from a young age. Still, you can always build up your tolerance by gradually eating spicier things. I did. Now I’m at the point where what most people consider incredibly hot, I just think is mild.

Also an interesting fact, is I can’t taste bitterness (about 25% of people can’t), which some people believe is linked to an increased tolerance and enjoyment of spicy foods.




Top-level comments (direct replies to OP) must be explanations. Anecdotes are not allowed at the top level.