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Capsaicin: How Peppers Pack Their Punch
The thing that gives hot sauce its heat is a chemical known as capsaicin. Learn more about this gastronomic knockout with Groupon’s introduction.
Capsaicin is an oily compound that gives hot peppers their delectable kick, but it may have evolved so that we wouldn’t eat them at all. Though it’s easy to think of spiciness as just another flavor, like sweetness or bitterness, it actually registers on our brains via an entirely different mechanism: our pain receptors, specifically the ones on our tongues that normally signal that you forgot to blow out a birthday candle before eating your cake. (To the brain, the resemblance to actual heat is so strong that it actually prompts the skin to start sweating.) Humans seem to be alone in enjoying this fake-out of the senses, and other animals’ aversion may account for capsaicin’s prevalence in peppers. Chili and habanero plants need their seeds to be spread, but not every animal that bites into their fruits will do so effectively, and some, such as insects, will be actively destructive. Birds, on the other hand, don’t have the kind of pain receptors that make other creatures find capsaicin distinctly irritating—they can eat peppers and spread the seeds without experiencing any burn, which is why salsa for birds never really caught on.
On the other side of capsaicin-related pain is numbness: given enough intensity, the affected pain receptors simply shut down and become unresponsive. That property has caught the eye of medical researchers, who have begun manufacturing capsaicin-laden topical creams and even experimented with intense doses of purified capsaicin as a way to deliver pain relief directly to tissues affected by surgery.