Spicy food

If your spicytooth seems to have gotten stronger recently, you’re not alone. It appears our taste for hot and spicy food is on the increase.

A natural extracts specialty firm, Kalsec, has developed a new heat index way of measuring the use of hot peppers in food production. Evaluating more than 2,400 restaurant menus in the U.S., the group found that since 2009, the heat index has grown 21 percent—with an 8 percent increase just in 2012. Hot and spicy retail products increased by 16 percent.

Overall, our desire for spicier foods was paralleled by our desire for a variety of spicy options: According to the research, jalapenos and poblano peppers in foods grew strong in 2012 and cayenne saw a spike in consumption in Europe.

But why is our love for spicy food on the rise?

Psychologists and food researchers aren’t 100 percent sure exactly, but they’ve proposed several theories. Among the more obvious are our cultural backgrounds, learning from our parents or other influences early in life. When the mind expects something to always taste spicy, it’s hard to break that habit, especially if we grew up with that sensation.

Another factor could be our obsession with food porn and cooking shows where chefs frequently experiment with heat levels in spicy foods for shock value. We’re enticed by so many celebrity chefs these days that it’s breeding competitiveness in us: they make it spicy? We can make it even spicier.

One study also suggests our love of spicy food is akin to thrill seeking—the culinary equivalent of riding a roller coaster or gambling. We love experiencing the burn of hot foods in a way that makes us feel more alive.

Regardless of why we love spicy foods, there are pros and cons to the pepper: Eating spicy foods can help you better manage portions (you eat more slowly when your brow is sweating and your tongue is on fire). This can mean weight loss and improved digestion. Spicy foods can also kill bacteria, which is why most of the regions around the equator—where food can rot more quickly—also eat lots of spicy peppers. It helps to mitigate some food borne illnesses.

But spicy foods can also be damaging. Too much too often can wreak havoc on your digestive system giving you heartburn, upset stomach, inflammation in the bowels, or diarrhea. With spicy often comes salty—particularly in packaged or processed foods—and too much sodium isn’t the healthiest thing. Neither is a Taco Bell run at 2 am. So be careful with the spice!

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: Nina Matthews