Some like it hot: Fiery ingredients such as chili, horseradish and Szechuan pepper give dishes a special zing. The spicy ingredients activate the heat receptors in the human body and often cause the nose to run and the eyes to water. Did you know that spicy foods are also said to have a positive effect on health and well-being? We tell you whether there is any truth in these assumptions and what degrees of spiciness there are in chili peppers.

What is spicy food and how do we taste spiciness?

A variety of foods contain pungency: In addition to the chili pepper, these include ginger, garlic, pepper, horseradish and mustard. The actual pungent substances bear names such as capsaicin (chili) and allicin (garlic). While for some people even a blob of medium-hot mustard causes beads of sweat to form on their foreheads, others prefer to eat extra-hot chili sauces. People’s perception of spiciness varies greatly – which explains the effect of spicy foods. After all, spicy is not a flavor that includes sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. It is not the taste buds on the tongue that perceive spiciness, but the heat receptors in the oral mucosa.

This results in a heat and pain stimulus in the organism: blood circulation is increased, a feeling of heat develops, the pores open and the body sweats. The pungent substances also activate the flow of saliva and cause the typical burning sensation in the mouth. The nociceptors are responsible for this: these are the nerve endings in the mouth. These normally warn the body if we eat something too hot and burn ourselves in the process.

Fun Fact: Spicy food like curry or a properly peppered steak has an intense flavor, which is why it needs less salt. The spices enhance the flavor, so the meal tastes delicious even with just a little salt. Just try it out for yourself!

Hot, hotter, hottest: What are the heat levels of chilies?

Not for the faint of heart: chilies are among the hottest ingredients and are particularly popular in Asian cuisine. The peppers originate from Central and South America and are divided into several degrees of heat according to the Scoville scale. The degree of heat of a chili pepper is measured by its capsaicin content. The indication refers in principle to dried pods, since these taste hotter than fresh chili. In the overview you will find some exemplary listed varieties with their Scoville units.

0 – 1: Vegetable peppers, Sweet Banana Chilis
100 – 500: Hot peppers, Pimentón de la Vera
2.500 – 5.500: Jalapeño chili, Mirasol
30.000 – 50.000: Cayenne pepper, Piquin
50.000 – 100.000: Malagueta, Chiltepin
100.000 – 500.000: Habanero, African Birdseye, Scotch Bonnet
over 500.000: Naga Morich, Trinidad Moruga Scorpion

Spicy food: healthy or unhealthy?

Spicy food is said to have a health effect, which is mainly due to the individual ingredients. What it has to do with the possible effect on health, we explain to you in the following a little more detail:

  • Spicy horseradish contains essential mustard oil, which consists mainly of monounsaturated fatty acids. Other components are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are essential polyunsaturated fatty acids. These vital fatty acids are involved, for example, in building cell membranes and in various processes in the body. Pure mustard oil is also available in stores. In the case of products with EU approval, you can be sure that the oil contains only a very low level of erucic acid. This monounsaturated fatty acid is suspected of having a harmful effect on the heart when consumed in excess. Mustard oils are also used as an ingredient in natural medicines because they have an antibacterial effect.
  • Chili, with its ingredient capsaicin, is also considered a “healthy spicer.” The spice stimulates blood circulation and can therefore help with tension. In addition, the pain-inhibiting capsaicin in appropriate doses helps to relieve nerve pain. In addition, since the body reacts to the pain stimulus by releasing endorphins, people sometimes perceive a temporary feeling of happiness. Because of these various properties, chili is even said to have a life-prolonging effect. However, the biochemical mechanisms for this protective effect have not yet been fully researched. Excessive consumption, on the other hand, carries the risk of vomiting, nausea, irritation of the mucous membranes and high blood pressure.
  • The allicin contained in garlic has a health-promoting effect (presumably in conjunction with other constituents of the bulb). Allicins have antibiotic, fungicidal (fungicidal), antiasthmatic and antioxidant effects. The contained vitamin B1 is necessary for the digestion of carbohydrates. This process is, among other things, a prerequisite for brain and nerve function. However, garlic can cause allergic reactions, which is especially observed in pollen allergy sufferers.

Cooking with spicy ingredients: What should I bear in mind?

Spicy food is a matter of habituation: If you enjoy fiery foods more often, you will gradually perceive the spiciness less. That’s why the motto is always the same: whatever tastes good is allowed. Children are usually more sensitive to spicy substances than adults. Therefore, let your children taste an unfamiliar meal with spicy ingredients carefully at first. In general, it is advisable to approach spicy food slowly – some become chili gourmets, while others prefer to stick to the mild variety.

Spicy food during pregnancy: What is allowed?

If there are no medical reasons why you shouldn’t, you can enjoy an Asian curry dish with a pleasant spiciness and mustard with your sausage during pregnancy. Even babies in the womb can perceive different tastes – but you do not need to worry that your unborn child will eat too spicy. However, pregnant women are more likely to get heartburn, stomach pain and nausea from spicy foods. Therefore, always enjoy spicy food with caution. Some expectant mothers, on the other hand, have real cravings for spicy foods. Whether spicy foods can induce labor toward the end of pregnancy has not been scientifically proven.

Eat spicy foods and eat healthy: Fiery foods like mustard or chili add variety to your diet, if you like them. If you like spicy food, try it out step by step to achieve the perfect taste experience. As always, the golden rule of nutrition applies: when eating, the right amount matters. Get inspiration for spicy dishes for lunch and dinner here!

Immediate help: How can I tone down spicy food?

Eating too much chili or very spicy food is not only unpleasant. You may even risk circulatory problems. If you accidentally overdo it, this is an easy way to defuse the burning sensation in your mouth: Drink milk immediately. The pungent substances dissolve in the fat components of the milk, which reduces the painful sensation. Water or juice, on the other hand, have hardly any effect. If you have spiced your food too hot in the pan, add sour cream, cream, yogurt or coconut milk.

Tip: You can take the heat out of chilies during preparation by cutting open the pods and removing the insides. Cut out both the white septum and the seeds. It is best to use a knife and fork. If you accidentally touch the seeds with your fingers, wash your hands thoroughly. Otherwise, you may rub the spiciness into your face and eyes.


Back to Top