Science: What’s It Up To?
Looks Like things are getting too spicy for the pepper!
Since I began writing for this esteemed publication, my adoring fans have been hounding me, “DO A COLUMN ABOUT NACHOS IT WILL BE SO FUNNY LOL.” Here it is.
What makes the chilli in your nachos so spicy? How come it burns the shit out of yo’ face? What evolutionary reason is there for it?
The reason for all the fire is a molecule called capsaicin. Contrary to popular belief it isn’t concentrated in the seeds of chillis, instead it’s found in the placenta of the pepper that attaches the seeds to the pod.
It burns because it tricks your brain. Think of your temperature receptive nerves as a lock, and fire as the key. When the key meets the lock, the neuron carries a signal to the brain telling you that you’re on fire. Now say we have don’t have the key (real fire) but we have something that is shaped pretty close to it (capsaicin). You are still able to open the lock, thus tricking your brain into thinking you’re on fire. In other words, though there is a chemical setting off these receptors, it isn’t actually a chemical burn or actual damage that causes the burning/painful sensation; it’s just your dumb brain getting tricked by a plant.
But why is it so good? Our obsession with chillis can be at least partly explained by the fact that our body releases endorphins in response to the burn. These are the same chemicals released during orgasm.
So why are they hot? My boy KC Burns has the answer for that. Capsaicin acts mainly as a deterrent against would-be mammal predators such as rodents. If a mammal eats a chilli, the seeds are completely destroyed by the mammalian digestive system. Birds, unlike mammals, swallow the seeds whole and don’t get burned. When the birds fly away and spread their droppings, they help the parent plant to disperse its seeds. However, recent research suggests this may not be the whole story. US scientists working in Bolivia have discovered that the hotter the chilli, the better its defences against harmful fungus, leading the researchers to propose that heat may have evolved to help chillis deal with harmful microbes, as well as hungry mammals.
If you’re in the mood for a spicy meal, then head to A-Roy Thai #4 on Cuba St and get a number 39, you won’t regret it.
Dedicated to Chloe Young and Matt Swinbourn, the biggest nacho fans of them all.