Why do people have variable tolerences for spicy foods?

O.K. - I searched the archives and couldn’t find an answer…

…why do different people have different tolerances to spicy foods?

I went to dinner tonight with 5 friends to a Chinese restaurant… two of us asked for spicy red pepper on the side and put a bit on everything we ate. It was, well, spicy, but I didn’t think it was hot at all. Two other friends tried it and one, I thought, was going to have to be taken to the hospital - he said it felt as if his tongue was on fire (a couple of beers calmed him down).

The answer may lie in the make-up of some sort of heat receptors on the tongue? I don’t know (if I knew I obviously wouldn’t be asking)…

Or is just a case of building up a tolerance?

Help me, please - my curiosity is piqued! (Which can lead to bad posture and God knows I don’t need that handicap on top of all the others…).


From personal experience, I’d vote for building up a tolerance. Mother used to pack jalopeno peppers in my school lunch. Now, being away from Tejas for a while, they would burn a hole in my tongue.

I, too, vote for tolerance: In my younger days, I was extremely heat-sensitive. Even mild hot sauces would send me into paryoxisms and the mere thought of a jalapeno could make my forehead bead up. As I aged, I ate more and more widely, moving from tame fare to foods rather spicy by anyone’s standards. Now, I occasionally enjoy putting Crystal sauce or one of its relatives (all vinegar/hot pepper red sauces are the same) on my bare palm and licking it off, in addition to the more common technique of putting it on Wheat Thins, not to mention enjoying rather spicy Asian and Mexican cuisine.

I do feel the heat, but I don’t get as bothered by it. I accept it as part of a larger taste experience.

Building up a tolerance is definitely a large determinant, but I presume genetic variation can affect it too. It’s possible that some people have more or less receptors for the spicyness (it’s a kind of pain receptor, not heat). That probably doesn’t account for too much of a difference, though, so the tolerance idea is still the major one here.

Sir Dirx is on the money.

There is some work done by registered scienticians which points to people accepting flavors more easily in their youth, and plenty of evidence that, if they have to, grown people do become accustomed to foods. (e.g., Women can barely finish a meal their first day of prison, but after several months may look forward to “apple crumble day.”)

A lot of it though, has to be in your genes. Different people have different body types, so it stands to reason they would crave different types of foods. Some people have a very sophisticated sense of taste and smell, and such a person might be pickier, or greedier, than someone else. (Clinical evidence says they are pickier, and tend to not like peppers, coffee, and grapefruit juice. But none of these clinics are in Mexico or even the Rio Grande Valley.)

I suspect lifestyle has a lot to do with what foods you like. As a cold-blooded person, I don’t eat much salad or ice cream. Always going for the high-temperature food. Also, as an active person, I’m hungry for fats and complex carbs. Really really hungry. When I’m traveling or the weather is bad and I can’t be active, I don’t crave fats so much and don’t even like the smell of sweets.

Additionally, people can develop aversions to certain foods or flavors. Say you had the worst hangover of your life, and your wife came in with a breakfast tray of Cheerios and fried eggs - you might never eat Cheerios and fried eggs again.

I’ll bet that an individual’s taste for spices is closely linked to his tolerence (or lack thereof) for allergens. After all, spices can make our mouths burn, our eyes water, our pores sweat, and our noses run. Aren’t these really very mild allergic reactions (the sensations of which we enjoy as we might enjoy a sneeze or a mild itch)?

I’m just posting this off the top of my head. I could do some research on the spice/allergen connection, but I’m a lazy sod.

Hmm - I’m not so sure about the tolerance answers. Although I admit that I was introduced to hot & spicy Mexican food as a child in San Diego (but only for five years), my ex-wife grew up on the East Coast and wasn’t exposed to spicy food until college; when we were married we would order Thai food “Thai hot” and relished Habanero sauces from all across North America. And we put that Vietnamese pepper paste (which I’m sure has a name - it has a chicken/rooster on it?) into just about anything (it’s great in spaghetti, on fish, etc.).

So… I’m going to see if I can find anything concerning pain receptors on the tongue… that seems more likely (to me, anyway).

BTW - I don’t consider Thai food to be good if it doesn’t clear out my sinuses in ten minutes! That’s always been sort of my mark of distinction between good Thai food and bad!


Personally, I think it probably has a lot to do with what you’re used to. My family is fairly WASPish and as such, our upbringings did not involve ‘hot’ types of food, so even a mild curry or satay has me drinking a couple of glasses of water. Several of my friends, however, had this type of food infused into their diets as they grew up and do not have the same problem as I do.

I know from experience that your tolerance grows. It grows FAST, too. On occasion, I make a big ol’ pot of Green Chile. Green Chile - for those who don’t know - is basically a stew made with roasted hot chile peppers, pork, some onions & garlic, and a few other spices and such. It’s HOT, really, really HOT.

If I’ve gone a while without eating hot foods, the first bowl of this stuff is excrutiating. Delicious, but I have to eat it with massive quantities of beer. By the end of the week, though, when I’ve been eating it with every meal (goes great with eggs, btw), I can sail through a bowl and it only seems mildly spicy. And no, it doesn’t mellow out in the fridge. If anything, it gets spicier the longer it sits.

Either I’ve developed a tolerance, or evolution has happened in a week. I leave you to decide which has has occured.

I will agree that tolerance can develop quickly later in life. I never had anything very hot at all until I started losing weight a few years ago. Pace Mild picante sauce used to make my tongue burn.

But I found that one thing that makes eating a pleasure again with low-calorie foods is spicing the hell out of them. And jalapeno peppers (not poppers) make a great snack, at less than 5 cal/pepper.

But I went from being able to barely tolerate Pace Mild and Taco Bell mild sauce to going to Indian restaurants and ordering a great big “extra spicy” Vindaloo or Tindaloo and saying “is that all you’ve got?” And making habanero omlettes, too…speaking of which, that sounds good right now.

Athena, I’m all for really rapid evolution, but in the interests of science I’m willing to give your theory a try. Would it be possible to give a more detailed description of the specific formula you use so I can try to reproduce your results? :wink:

Can this cheesehead stop by for a bowl?

I take it yer looking for a Green Chile recipe, TTT?

OK, here goes. It’s more of a technique that a written recipe, but I’ll try. The tricky part is getting the Green Chiles. Back when I lived in Colorado, you could buy roasted green chiles by the bushel at Farmer’s Markets in the fall. I’m guessing that you can’t do that in the Netherlands. You can’t even do that here in Michigan, which is a fair bit closer to the American Southwest than you are. So you gotta roast your own green chiles, which is a fair amount of work, but doable.

Go buy a mess of green chile peppers. Get the hottest you can get in your area - I’m partial to Anchos, but who knows what kinds of chiles are in the Netherlands? Are there chiles in the Netherlands? If not, this is gonna be hard. Assuming you can get chiles, go buy 3-4 pounds of them. Take them home, cut off the tops, and slice down one side. Flatten them out so that the skin side is up. Place on a tinfoil-lined cookie sheet, and put them under the broiler until the skin turns black. Remove from oven, put in a plastic bag, or in a bowl covered with plastic wrap. Let them steam until they’re cool. Once their cool, peel the blackened skin off. WEAR PLASTIC OR RUBBER GLOVES, unless you want your hands to burn for the next few days.

Chop the roasted chiles. We want about 4 cups of them.

OK, now that we have the chiles, here’s the recipe, more or less:

4 cups roasted chiles, chopped
1 large white onion, chopped
garlic - 4-5 cloves or so
olive oil for sauteing
cumin - a generous spoonful
1 or 1.5 pounds of pork shoulder, boned and cubed
about 2 cups of beef or pork stock.
1 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes
salt and pepper

Saute the onions and garlic in the olive oil until soft. Add in a spoonful or so of cumin, saute until fragrent. Add pork, brown. Add the green chiles & diced tomatoes. Give it a stir. Throw in the stock - enough to make the mixture look wet but stew-y rather than water-y. Cover, simmer for a couple hours. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Eating suggestions:

  • in a bowl, with tortillas
  • cold, with tortilla chips (like a salsa)
  • over burritos
  • in eggs
  • with beans
  • over a pork chop
  • on breakfast cereal
  • on oatmeal
  • intraveniously
  • as an ice-cream topping
  • mix with milk; drink
  • green chile milkshakes!
  • over pancakes
  • as a dip for bananas
  • etc. etc.

c’mon over. But wait, can you stop by New Mexico and pick up some roasted chiles on the way? They’re rather scarce here up in pastyland.


I’m inclined to go with the idea of building up tolerance to spicy food. When I was a kid, we never had anything spicy because my mother (who did the majority of the cooking) said she didn’t like any of it.

When I grew up and left home, I started making spicy dishes for myself but I can remember the time when even the mildest chile or curry would have me wanting to sink my head into a bucket of ice-cold water. Now I’m making things stronger and hotter because those old mild ones just don’t do it for me any more. Even my mother has started having a little bit of spicy stuff but she’s yet to brave a good hot curry.

This may not be the case but here it goes. I smoked from the time I was 14 to just about 6 months ago. I could always tolerate spicy foods, that is up until I quit smoking. Once I had stopped for a couple of weeks I noticed that food tasted a whole lot different and the spicy foods I have always ate got stronger. I asked and someone told me that when you stop smoking, your tongue and tasebuds change. According to them smoking dulls the senses and now that I have stopped, my mouth is more sensitive to taste I guess you could say. My point is,BTW,do you smoke and is your friend perhaps a non-smoker? If this is not the case then just ignore my reply. Thanks!

Maybe my friends have (from WebMD):

“Burning Mouth Syndrome is characterized by a burning sensation in the mouth and/or tongue. In some cases, this condition may be associated with vitamin B12 deficiency, oral yeast infection (candida albicans), or irritation from dental prosthetics (dentures). The burning sensation may be aggravated by hot spicy foods.”

Another interesting thing - I just returned from the emergency room… I forgot to order “without MSG” and had an MSG reaction (chest pain and ‘feelings of detachment’). Most of the Chinese restaurants (if not all) in Atlanta (where I moved from recently) displayed “no added MSG” on the menu - so I just became accustomed to not bothering to specifically request “no MSG”.

I was only in the ER for three hours because after a normal EKG, blood work, etc., the Doc asked “Did you eat anything unusual last night?”

I could kick myself…


Well Athena, you saw right through my transparant ploy to lure your recipe into the open. Guess my scientific interest lacks credibility. :slight_smile:

Thanks BTW for taking account of my location. Chilis (chili-peppers) are plentiful around here, although most don’t seem very hot to me. I’ve never heard of roasted chilis, let alone fresh roasted ones. Your explanation seems simple enough (and the tip on wearing gloves I’ll keep in mind).

I still have one question: what is pork stock? My dictionary gives tons of translations for stock, but nothing even remotely related to cooking and food. Is it like lard?

I’ll try your recipe next weekend when I’ve done the required shopping. I’ll let you know the result when the burn in my mouth has cooled off. :eek: :o :stuck_out_tongue: (smiley eating spicy food, smiley digesting spicy food, smiley licking lips).

Stock is essentially broth. You know, a meat-flavored liquid made by simmering bones, vegetables, and herbs to get the flavor out. 'round here, you can buy it at the grocery in cans or aseptic packs. I’m guessing it’s the same in the Netherlands.

Canned pork stock is rare; in fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it. I typically use beef stock. Homemade, if I have some. Otherwise canned.

Look for hot chiles, if you can find 'em. That’s the only hot thing about the stew - if you make it with mild chiles, it’s going to be mild.

Roasted chiles are one of the mainstays of New Mexican cooking. You can roast any kind of chile and it adds a wonderful smokiness to them. Roasted sweet red bell peppers are wonderful on pizza or in scrambled eggs - not spicy in the least, just smokey and sweet and pepper-y.

That link I posted above (the “oh-ho!” one) leads to a place that talks more about roasted chiles, if you care to learn more.