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Can Too Much Spicy Food Burn Off Your Taste Buds?

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by Margaret Hoffman

It all starts so innocently: You order the jalapeño burger, dribble on a little Tabasco, maybe add a dollop of that habanero salsa, and boom. Suddenly, you’re clutching the table, eyes watering as you signal for the waiter to bring you some cold milk. In all this self-induced pain, one has to wonder: Is this spice addiction taking a toll on your ability to taste? 

To answer the question, let’s first take a look at capsaicin, the heat-inducing chemical in spicy peppers. In the real estate of pain-inducing-toxic-yet-edible-chemicals, capsaicin has a monopoly: It is the sole proprietor of all heat found in peppers or pepper-infused products, ranging from curry blends to hot sauces to those little packets of taco seasoning at Taco Bell.

After one bite of a hot pepper or a spicy dish, capsaicin is released from the membranes of the peppers, clips to the neurotransmitters that regulate temperature in your mouth, and screams out to those neurons that things are heating up. The brain registers the signal and reacts just as it would in the case of a real fire: by triggering your body's fight-or-flight response. Your heart speeds up, you start to sweat, and endorphins rush to the scene. Those endorphins put up a barrier to protect the tongue from the “fire,” which causes the mouth to go temporarily numb. 

But the endorphins’ numbing powers only last for so long before the heat and consequential pain creep back in, leaving you in tears and your taste buds temporarily busted. Thankfully, it all wears off in good time, but just how much time depends on the pepper’s capsaicin levels.

The Scoville Scale is used to measure the capsaicin levels in every pepper from humble bell peppers to scorching Ghost peppers. The more Scoville Heat Units a pepper has, the higher the heat intensity (and the longer you’ll be in pain). Offered a chance to take a bite of the Guinness World Record-breaking Bhut Jolokia? Buckle in. You’ll be aching for the next 24 hours.  

But fear not, chile-head! Despite the unremitting agony brought on by capsaicin’s heat, the tongue’s exposure to capsaicin does not result in tissue damage to your taste buds. This is because taste and the heat are two different sensations and, as such, are interpreted by two different types of receptors (polymodal nociceptors for heat and pain, caliculus gustatorius for taste). Capsaicin only triggers  the heat-sensing receptors—so, even though your entire tongue may feel numb, your taste buds in fact remain unaffected. 

While spicy foods don't cause long-term tissue damage, it's possible to improve your spice tolerance over time by integrating more capsaicin into your diet in small doses. Start with a pinch of cayenne or sprinkle some chile flakes on your pizza. Over time, the heat receptors on your tongue build up a degree of resistance to the toxin. So, while you’ll always experience the heat, it won’t be nearly as intense as that first time you chomped into curry.

In the meantime, keep a glass of milk close at hand when you tuck in to taco night. Studies show that capsaicin dissolves in the presence of fat, alcohol, and casein (a protein found in dairy). Unlike water (which spreads the capsaicin around), these substances surround and absorb the capsaicin on your tongue.

But whether you choose to seek sweet dairy relief or wait out the pain, your taste buds remain unaffected, so go ahead. Pour on the Sriracha. Your taste buds will be just fine.

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Steve Jennings/Getty Images for Civic Entertainment Group
Where Does the Word 'Meme' Come From?
Steve Jennings/Getty Images for Civic Entertainment Group
Steve Jennings/Getty Images for Civic Entertainment Group

By Jenna Scarbrough

Certain fads, catchphrases, dances, and songs bombard our society—nowadays, almost all of these are either born on or popularized through the Internet. Grumpy Cat, Rickrolling, Left Shark, the optical illusion dress—all of these ubiquitous cultural sensations have this in common. Some of these stick for a while, some don’t. Those that stick are branded as memes. But what exactly is a meme?

In 1976, Richard Dawkins, the English evolutionary biologist, proposed an idea in his book, The Selfish Gene: What if ideas were like organisms, where they could breed and mutate? These ideas, he claimed, are actually the basis for human culture, and they are born in the brain.

Dawkins’s research is primarily in genetics. He has argued that all life relies on replication. But unlike cells, ideas do not rely on a chemical basis for survival. They begin from a single location—the brain—and spread outward, jumping from one vessel to another, battling for attention. Some ideas are more successful, which may be due to an element of truth they carry, while others slowly die out. Some may not be accurate, but society has accepted these ideas for so long that they are just accepted (think about pictures of Jesus or George Washington; while these may not be what they actually looked like, almost all art now portrays these men in the same way).

Dawkins needed a name for this concept. He proposed calling it mimeme, from the Greek word meaning “that which is replicated.” He wrote in his book, “I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme.” He felt the monosyllabic word would be more fitting because it sounds similar to "gene." “If it is any consolation,” he continued, “it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory,’ or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream.’”

Although he probably couldn’t imagine the possibility of Internet memes during his initial research in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Dawkins has now accepted the appropriation. Because it’s still viral, he said in an interview with WIRED, this popularity increase goes right along with his theory that ideas are similar to living things.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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25 Awesome Australian Slang Terms
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by Helena Hedegaard Holmgren 

Australian English is more than just an accent, and the Aussie vernacular can easily leave both English speakers and foreigners perplexed. Australian English is similar to British English, but many common words differ from American English—and there are many unique Aussie idiosyncrasies, slang terms, and expressions.

The term for Aussie slang and pronunciation is strine, and it is often characterized by making words as short as possible; the story goes it developed by speaking through clenched teeth to avoid blowies (blow flies) from getting into the mouth. So if you plan to visit the world’s smallest continent, this list of some of the most commonly used slang expressions is for you.

1. Arvo: afternoon

2. Barbie: barbeque

3. Bogan: redneck, an uncultured person. According to the Australian show Bogan Hunters, a real bogan sports a flanno (flannel shirt), a mullet, missing teeth, homemade tattoos (preferably of the Australian Flag or the Southern Cross), and has an excess of Australia paraphernalia. This "species of local wildlife" can be found by following their easily distinguishable tracks from burnouts or the smell of marijuana.

4. Bottle-O: bottle shop, liquor store

5. Chockers: very full

6. Esky: cooler, insulated food and drink container

7. Fair Dinkum: true, real, genuine

8. Grommet: young surfer

9. Mozzie: mosquito

10. Pash: a long passionate kiss. A pash rash is red irritated skin as the result of a heavy make-out session with someone with a beard.

11. Ripper: really great

12. Roo: kangaroo. A baby roo, still in the pouch, is known as a Joey

13. Root: sexual intercourse. This one can get really get foreigners in trouble. There are numerous stories about Americans coming to Australia telling people how they love to "root for their team." If you come to Australia, you would want to use the word "barrack" instead. On the same note, a "wombat" is someone who eats roots and leaves.

14. Servo: gas station. In Australia, a gas station is called a petrol station. If you ask for gas, don’t be surprised if someone farts.

15. She’ll be right: everything will be all right

16. Sickie: sick day. If you take a day off work when you are not actually sick it’s called chucking a sickie.

17. Slab: 24-pack of beer

18. Sook: to sulk. If someone calls you a sook, it is because they think you are whinging

19. Stubbie holder: koozie or cooler. A stubbie holder is a polystyrene insulated holder for a stubbie, which is a 375ml bottle of beer.

20. Sweet as: sweet, awesome. Aussies will often put ‘as’ at the end of adjectives to give it emphasis. Other examples include lazy as, lovely as, fast as and common as.

21. Ta: thank you

22. Togs: swim suit

23. Tradie: a tradesman. Most of the tradies have nicknames too, including brickie (bricklayer), truckie (truckdriver), sparky (electrician), garbo (garbage collector) and chippie (carpenter).

24. Ute: Utility vehicle, pickup truck

25. Whinge: whine

Good onya, mate! Understanding the Aussies should be easy as now.

Additional Sources: Urban Attitude; All Down Under - Slang Dictionary; Australian Words - Meanings and Origins; Australian Dictionary; Koala Net; Australian Explorer; Up from Australia; YouTube, 2; McDonalds.

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