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Why Is Spicy Food Spicy?

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Kids ask a lot of questions. mental_floss has answers. This week we launched WHY?, our new series for kids and parents. We'll tackle all types of questions children have about how the world works by providing science-based, kid-friendly content. Our answers are written with early readers (ages 4 to 7) in mind, but we think they're interesting—and educational—for everyone.

Have a question? Send it to why@mentalfloss.com.

That tingling, hot feeling usually comes from chili peppers, but sometimes from horseradish (a root) or mustard. Let’s talk about peppers. Their seeds have capsaicin (cap-SAY-uh-sin), which is an irritant to us. We feel this irritation like a burn. 

Pepper plants are trying to protect themselves—and make more pepper plants. Peppers are the juicy fruit of a flowering plant. Birds and animals eat the peppers and then poop out the seeds. That’s good! The seeds then grow in a new place. But when bugs eat the peppers, they leave little holes in the fruit. Tiny creatures called fungi (FUN-guy) enter the holes and eat the seeds, stopping them from growing. Capsaicin protects the seeds from the fungi. 

A lot of people think a little burn makes food taste better. But a lot of others don’t. Eating food that’s too spicy for you can hurt your mouth and your stomach. So it’s important to know your peppers before you eat. The Scoville Scale orders chili peppers from hottest to mildest. The hottest peppers can be more than 2 million times spicier than the mildest. Now that’s hot! 

To learn more, listen to NPR's interview with the biologist who discovered the connection between pepper heat and fungi.

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istock/Chloe Effron
Why Are Flamingos Pink?
istock/Chloe Effron
istock/Chloe Effron

WHY? is our attempt to answer all the questions every little kid asks. Do you have a question? Send it to why@mentalfloss.com.

It’s easy to spot flamingos. These amazing birds have long, skinny legs and a long, skinny neck to match. When they first hatch, flamingos have pale gray feathers. As they grow up, their feathers start to turn beautiful shades of pink.

It’s because of what they eat. Flamingos hang out in big flocks in wetlands like shallow lakes and lagoons. They stand high and dry on their long legs and swish water through their big beaks to catch bits of food. What do flamingos like to eat? One thing is algae (AL-jee), a type of water plant. They also love tiny crustaceans (cruss-TAY-shuns)—animals like shrimp with hard shells or skeletons on the outside. These are the foods that turn flamingos pink. 

Just like the carrots, pumpkins, and tomatoes that humans eat, algae and many crustaceans contain natural chemicals with a red-orange pigment, or color. As baby flamingos digest algae and shrimp, these healthy chemicals get stored in their fat. The fat helps their feathers grow. Over time, this turns their feathers different shades of pink, orange, and sometimes even red. If flamingos stop eating the foods that turn them pink, their color fades!

Watch this video with David Attenborough to learn why a pink bird is a healthy bird! 

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iStock/Chloe Effron
Why Do Astronauts Wear Space Suits?
iStock/Chloe Effron
iStock/Chloe Effron

WHY? is our attempt to answer all the questions every little kid asks. Do you have a question? Send it to why@mentalfloss.com.

Space suits don’t just make astronauts look cool. Without these special suits, astronauts wouldn’t be able to leave their spacecraft. They wouldn’t be able to walk on the Moon or work outside the International Space Station.

 

Space is a dangerous place for humans. There is no air to breathe. Space also has high levels of radiation (ray-dee-AY-shun), energy that can move through our bodies and make us sick. Some parts of space are really cold. Other parts are very hot. So astronauts could die in just a few seconds if they stepped outside their spacecraft without their suits. With a space suit, though, astronauts can move around in space for several hours.

 

Space suits seal astronauts safely inside. A backpack sends oxygen in to let astronauts breathe normally. At the same time, carbon dioxide that astronauts breathe out gets sucked away. The suit also protects them from harmful radiation and fast-moving space dust. Under the space suit is another suit that looks like a pair of tight pajamas with little tubes running through them. Water gets pumped through these tubes to cool off the astronauts. It can get hot in a space suit!

Want to find out more? You can play this game from NASA to learn about the different parts of a space suit.

 

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