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Did You Know That "Spicy" is Not a Taste?

Updated on June 13, 2016
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Ishti studied medicine. He has a very simple way of looking at the world but people find him very complex in nature.

CHICKEN TORTILLA SOUP
CHICKEN TORTILLA SOUP

"Spicy" is not a taste, but you didn't know that, did you?

Yes, you heard me right! Spiciness is not a taste!

You may think you know what you are talking about and perhaps you are right. The Chicken Tortilla Soup you had today may be spicy, but spiciness is not one of the five basic tastes. There are only five basic tastes and they are: saltiness, sourness, sweetness and bitterness and umami. All the other tastes are a combination of the above five basic tastes.

But here is the thing: spiciness is not produced as a result of the combination of the basic tastes. Interesting, right?

Before explaining how you perceive spiciness, let me tell you a little about how we perceive taste.

How Do We Taste Things?

Taste is basically the sensation that you get when you put something in your mouth. But that something must react chemically with the taste receptors in your mouth for you to taste it. Don't worry if you don't know what taste receptors are, just read on and you will understand.

I am going to tell you a little about the anatomy of the structures that enable us to taste food because without understanding the anatomy you won't understand the physiology of taste!

Anatomy of Taste

Stand in front of a mirror and look at the surface of your tongue. You will see that it is covered with numerous tiny knobs. These knobs are called papillae. There are four kinds of papillae: fungiform, filiform, foliate, and circumvallate. Except for the filiform papilla all the other contain numerous tastebuds.

Papillae on tongue.
Papillae on tongue.

Taste buds are small onion-shaped structures made of about 50-100 modified epithelial cells. There are two types of cells: gustatory or taste cells and sustentacular, or supporting cells.

Onion-shaped tastebud.
Onion-shaped tastebud.
Taste bud
Taste bud

The gustatory cells are the main cells that are responsible for transferring the sensation of taste to the brain.

On top of these cell are numerous microvilli or gustatory/taste hairs. These taste hairs contain numerous receptors called taste receptors.

The body and lower portion of the gustatory cells are attached to numerous nerve fibres. These nerve fibres are branches of the facial, glossopharyngeal and vagus cranial nerves.

The sustentacular cells are basically the supporting cells which maintain the onion shaped structure of taste buds. They are mostly located in the outer region of tastebuds.

The outer tips (top part) of these two types of cells are arranged in such a way that a taste pore is formed on the upper portion of the tastebuds. The taste hairs present on the gustatory cells protrude into these taste pores and reach the mouth cavity.

That's all the anatomy you need to know for now to understand how we perceive taste. Now let's take a look at what actually happens when you put something tasty in your mouth.

Taste pathway.
Taste pathway. | Source

Physiology of Taste

When you put food in your mouth, the chemicals responsible for the taste of that food are dissolved by the saliva and are carried to the taste pores.
Once these chemicals reach the taste pores they bind with the taste receptors present on the taste hairs. This causes stimulation of the gustatory cells which in turn causes stimulation of the nerve fibers attached to the gustatory cells. These nerve fibers carry the signal to the gustatory cortex of the brain which interprets the signal and makes you aware of the taste.

And that is the basically how you taste something.

How Do We Taste Spicy Food?

Technically speaking we don't actually taste the spiciness in spicy food! Spiciness is in fact a form of pain sensation! Surprised? To understand why it is a pain sensation we need to know a bit of how we perceive pain.

Pain receptors (Nociceptors) are free nerve endings!
Pain receptors (Nociceptors) are free nerve endings!

So How Do We Perceive Pain?

Pain is basically a protective mechanism of the body. Pain makes you aware of something that is damaging your body. It makes you move away from something that is causing damage to your body.

Just like how we perceive taste via the taste receptors present on the taste hairs of gustatory cells, we perceive pain via pain receptors. These pain receptors are also called nociceptors.

Nociceptors are mostly present on the outer layers of the skin and mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, mouth, etc. But they can also be found on some deeper structures like the periosteum, arterial walls, etc.

Anatomically or structurally speaking, nociceptors are just free nerve endings.

When something damages your body, these nociceptors become activated and sends signals to your brain which intreprets the signals and makes you feel pain so that you try to move away from the source of damage.

Generally speaking, three kinds of stimuli can activate nociceptors- mechanical, thermal and chemical.

A Little About the Three Stimuli That Cause Pain

Have you ever suffered from back pain? That's an example of mechanical pain. Did you ever burn your hand while cooking? That's an example of thermal pain.

So that leaves us with chemical pain, and I guess you already know where I am going with this, don’t you? Yes, spicy foods contain chemicals which actually irritate and stimulate the nociceptors present in our mouth and the pungency you feel depends on the amount of pain it inflicts on the nociceptors. And that's not the whole story! Nociceptors, as I have said, are basically free nerve endings and in the mouth they are the free endings of the trigeminal nerve. Some of the free nerve endings of the Trigeminal nerve also monitor temperature (thermoreceptor) and spices also stimulate some of these thermoreceptors in your mouth. And that is why you also get a burning (hot) sensation while eating spicy food!

So spiciness is basically a combination of the pain and burning sensation that you get when you eat spicy food! The process of how all this happens is called Chemesthesis.

What Is Chemesthesis?

"Chemesthesis" is defined as the chemical sensibility of the skin and mucus membranes. Chemesthetic sensations arise when chemical compounds activate receptor mechanisms for other senses, usually those involved in pain, touch, and thermal perception. These sensations can be aroused from anywhere on the skin and mucous membranes of the nose, mouth, eyes, etc. That is why when you put chili pepper on your skin or nose (!) you feel a sensation of heat (burning sensation). But of course it is harder for the chemesthetic receptor on the skin to become activated by chili pepper because the surface of the skin is covered by a layer of dead skin cells whereas the mucous membranes lack this barrier of dead cells.

So, technically speaking, spiciness is not a taste because it is not produced by taste buds and the nerve that carries the "spicy" signals to the brain is the trigeminal nerve whereas taste sensations are carried via the facial, glossopharyngeal, and vagus nerves.

Do you like spicy food?

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More Fun Facts

  • Do you know why you cry when you cut onions? It's also a form of chemesthetic sensation!
  • The coolness of the menthol in your mouthwash is also because of chemesthesis!
  • Do you know that metallic is considered to be a basic taste as it can not be produced by combining the five basic tastes! Blood has a metallic taste.
  • Do you know that scientists are now thinking fattiness could be another basic taste?


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      markirlanda 3 months ago

      SO are you saying that it is physically possible to burn your mucos membranes (ie mouth) with very spicy food such as eating raw chillis? could this burn the taste buds?

      curious to know!

      Good post by the way

    • profile image

      Nice Article 4 months ago

      Well written with good presentation of information. Thanks. I would want to challenge your title in a sense, not challenging you but the scientific definition of taste ;p

      Should we be lining up our ideas of taste to it our should science be exploring taste in the context of our perception in order to be useful?

      Seems to me this is all proof that we should expand our scientific definition of taste to include a broader range of sensations.

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      Sumaiyah Shoaib 9 months ago

      Really nice post... I got too much from this post.. Thank you:)

    • profile image

      Felicia 10 months ago

      How does one come to love the "hotter the better"? Is it a conditioning of sorts (like environmental factors) And then the rest of us out here - why can we not tolerate the extreme heat of spicy foods like those who can? Appreciate feedback.

    • profile image

      CJsciencestudent 10 months ago

      nice post very informational for my science project

    • profile image

      shweta shukla 2 years ago

      I love spicy food... My mum is Kashmiri.... Don't really care whether it is a taste or a sensation......

    • profile image

      boniface 3 years ago

      i have been advise by my doctor to eat spicy food. I therefore want to know more about it

    • Jools Rixon profile image

      Julian Rixon 3 years ago from Cork, Ireland

      That was great and I really enjoyed reading it. I've just been doing some research into cat taste and this fills in some of the gaps. I think it's fascinating to compare human taste with that of other mammals. I only knew of four taste stimuli and unami was totally new to me!

    • epharmacology profile image

      epharmacology 4 years ago

      Great hub! Loved it. :)

    • profile image

      Nhat Minh 4 years ago

      Wow! Very nice work of yours, I really appreciate it! Thanks :D

    • christin53 profile image

      Ann-Christin 4 years ago from UK

      Great hub! I know what you mean about spiciness being a form of pain,if I have my chilli too hot it really is pain :)

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      Author

      Ishti 4 years ago

      Thank you for reading and the nice comments :)

    • Francesca27 profile image

      Francesca27 4 years ago from Hub Page

      Well done! I enjoyed your hub very much.

    • DayLeeWriter profile image

      Debra Cornelius 4 years ago from Georgia

      Wow...never knew that! Thanks for sharing! Voted up!

    • profile image

      Justsilvie 4 years ago

      Interesting and well done hub! Voted up and shared

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