Your body is not naturally a fan of spicy foods. And why should it be? It’s a lot of work to keep you safe, and the last thing you need is to be sampling high-risk produce. 

We as a species have gotten a pretty clear handle on which spicy foods are safe to eat and which aren’t, but that doesn’t mean our bodies have caught up. To your tongue, every pepper represents a threat. That’s why hot peppers, which have no intrinsic “hotness,” can set off such burnination in our mouths. 

That firestorm has two culprits: a chemical in the peppers called capsaicin, and you. A new video from the American Chemical Society explains how it all goes down, the reason it hurts, and why you should keep a glass of milk handy.

While it may not cause actual flames, capsaicin is pretty powerful stuff. It’s not just in there to make your meal an adventure; some plants use it as a biological weapon to deter creatures that would eat them (including us). Paradoxically, capsaicin’s inflammatory properties have also made it popular as a pain reliever. Capsaicin has also become a trick of the trade for soda makers, who use it to increase the spice factor in ginger beer and simulate the bite of fresh ginger. 

Got a little culinary daredevil in your home? Check out "Why Is Spicy Food Spicy?" from our WHY? series aimed at curious kids age 4–7.

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