AncestryDNA® Traits Learning Hub

AncestryDNA® Traits Learning Hub

AncestryDNA® Traits
Learning Hub

Spicy Foods

Are you a big fan of spicy foods? Human taste buds can detect sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami flavours, but spicy isn't actually considered a taste—it's a pain sensation triggered by capsaicin, a chemical compound found in certain plants.

If you enjoy the kick of a spicy dish—Sichuan hot pot, vindaloo, jerk chicken, or penne all’arrabbiata, for example—you may have inherited genes tied to it. AncestryDNA® Traits can detect whether you’re likely to have this genetic trait.

Why Do Some Adults Like Spicy Foods More Than Others?

People may prefer spicy foods for all sorts of reasons. Some might savour the flavour of a dish despite the heat. Others may be more inclined to eat spicy foods because they're part of their cultural cuisine.

Personality-related factors could also be at play, as there appears to be a link between those who have a tendency toward risk-taking behaviour and their preference for spicy food. Those who enjoy the thrill of roller coasters or driving quickly typically report enjoying spicier chicken wings—they like the burning sensation created by capsaicin interacting with the tongue.

Others might reach for spicy foods due to changes in their sense of taste. For example, some people receiving chemotherapy may find they lose their sense of taste as their taste receptors change—foods can taste completely different than they did before. However, because spicy foods are registered based on temperature receptors instead of taste receptors, the familiar sensations can still be experienced. In fact, some individuals receiving chemotherapy treatments develop a preference for spicier foods.

Is Your Taste For Spicy Foods In Your DNA?

Scientists have also discovered genetic components for enjoying an extra-spicy sandwich or ordering the hottest wings a restaurant has to offer. The AncestryDNA® team have discovered over 1,700 DNA markers associated with the trait of liking spicy dishes. There is a lot of variation in whether people like spicy food or not, and at least 7% of this variation can be explained by differences in DNA between people. The rest is explained by non-genetic differences, like the cultures they grew up in and personal experiences. All together, these DNA differences can explain about 7% of the variation in peoples' preferences for spicy foods—what scientists call the genetic heritability.

One direct way your DNA impacts your spice sensitivity is through the TRPV1 gene, which produces a receptor that controls spicy and pain sensations. The TRPV1 receptors are located on the surface of taste buds. When someone takes a bite of a spicy food, the spice chemical capsaicin attaches to the TRPV1 receptors. The receptors then transmit the hot and spicy sensation to the brain. Certain DNA differences can impact the function of the TRPV1 receptors, making a person more or less sensitive to spicy flavours.

Interestingly, spiciness isn’t the only taste trait influenced by your DNA. Our sensitivity to tastes like bitterness and sweetness are also influenced by differences in our DNA. For example, the gene TAS2R38 produces a receptor that picks up on bitter tastes. About one in four people have a version of this gene that makes them a “non-taster” for bitter flavours. Often, these people prefer spicy foods, maybe to compensate for missing other flavours.

What Else Does Science Say About People Who Like Spicy Foods?

While people around the world love spicy dishes, there are some geographical areas where this preference tends to be stronger than others. Typically, spicier foods—with ingredients like curry, ginger, gochujang, horseradish, and sriracha—can be found in cultures that live in hotter environments. Some believe this is related to perspiration triggered by eating something spicy. For example, when you bite into a capsaicin-rich red pepper, you'll likely start to sweat. That perspiration then serves as a way to cool down your body, allowing you to better tolerate high temperatures.

It's also possible that cultures in hotter regions developed recipes for spicier cuisines because spices tend to be antimicrobial. Onions, chile peppers, garlic, and black pepper, for example, can kill over 75% of the most common food borne bacteria and are highly preferred in hot climates.

Interesting Facts About Eating Spicy Foods

Humans and tree shrews are the only mammals that relish eating spicy foods, but tree shrews don't seem to find capsaicin painful. It’s likely that the capsaicin component in plants developed as a defence mechanism to prevent them from being eaten, as almost all animals would perceive the pain and stop eating.

But despite the sensation of pain, eating capsaicin-rich foods can actually have health benefits. If you're quick to order the spiciest dishes you might find yourself cooking with habaneros and jalapeño peppers, which have been known to boost metabolism because of their capsaicin content. Likewise, those who eat food with red chili peppers tend to consume an average of 75 fewer calories a day.

There also appears to be a correlation between enjoying and regularly partaking in spicy foods and having a reduced mortality rate. Some of the reasons could be due to the anti-inflammation and pain-relief qualities of capsaicin. But too much capsaicin can also trigger heartburn and stomach pain, so avoid overindulging in the hot wings.

If you're quick to reach for a spicy dish over something milder—or your favourite condiment is hot sauce—it's possible your penchant for spiciness comes from inherited genetic traits. Try the AncestryDNA® + Traits test to learn more about the traits that make you who you are, including whether or not you’re likely to enjoy spicy foods. If you already have your AncestryDNA results, then check out your traits results with an Ancestry® subscription.



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