In the salsa aisle, at the wing joint, or inside the Szechuan noodle house, what kind of man are you—medium? Hot? Exxxtra Atomic Hot? And what, if anything, does that say about you?
Men are into all things hot.
A recent study, conducted at Pennsylvania State University and published in the forthcoming issue of the journal Food Quality and Preference, examined people’s spicy food preferences and how they correlate with other factors like gender and personality. In the study, 246 test subjects answered questions about their favorite foods from BBQ to Asian food, took a personality survey, and then sampled a variety of intense flavors including capsaicin, the chemical that gives peppers their spicy kick.
The love of spicy food, strangely enough, broke down along gender lines: Men were more likely to report enjoying spicy food more than women. But here’s where things got really weird: In the actual taste test, the female test subjects were more likely to report actually enjoying the burning taste of the capsaicin. Men, on the other hand, did not—even if they had said they loved spicy foods. So what was going on here? Why would these dudes say they loved spicy meals if they didn’t actually like the taste?
To understand the disconnect, the researchers examined the results of the personality tests. They found that men who enjoyed spicy food inordinately craved excitement and also respect and adoration from their peers. These men, the researchers hypothesized, were like daredevils of spice. Much the way a BMX rider loves the airtime and the cheering crowds but hates doing any of this, these men were willing to sacrifice their taste buds for the thrill of the fiery atomic wings and the awed looks of their table-mates. “It is possible,” wrote the authors, “that the cultural association of consuming spicy foods with strength and machismo has created a learned social reward for men.”
There’s also a physiological basis for why these madcap capsaicin-baiters—these pirates of piquancy—are most often men: testosterone. In a separate study of spicy foods, published in the journal Physiology & Behavior, French researchers asked participants to spice up plates of mashed potatoes with salt and Tabasco sauce according to their preference. The men who went heaviest with the hot sauce? Pretty much the same guys with the most testosterone in their saliva. Taken with the Penn State study, this finding starts to give us a picture of what’s going on. High testosterone levels correlate with all sorts of risky behavior—riding roller-coasters, gambling, binge-drinking. Therefore, why wouldn’t these reckless men throw in some extra-hot jalapeÃ±o poppers, to boot? No thrill is too small, too cheap, too spicy. No wonder another study also found that people prone to risky sensation-seeking behavior also had an increased penchant for spicy foods.
Manliness and spice aside, what’s fascinating about these studies is what it tells us about why we enjoy the foods that we do. It’s not just a matter taste (and certainly not just nourishment). You might like a food because of how it leads you to act with your friends, or because of the strange cocktail of hormones coursing through your system. Meanwhile, rest assured that eating spicy food is likely good for you: A growing canon of research suggests that capsaicin can boost metabolism, lower bad cholesterol and blood pressure, prevent headaches, and maybe even provide arthritis relief). So if you can take the heat—and the testosterone coursing through your system is telling you to—by all means, do. Just remember the Tums, okay?
By Susmita Baral
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