How Spicy Do You Like It?

An evolutionary perspective on why some cultures have spicy food.

Posted Jun 06, 2018

Glenn Geher
Source: Glenn Geher

During my recent trip to Chongqing, deep in the heart of China, several local students took some colleagues and me to dinner. Chongqing, home of the “hot pot” dinner, is famous for having food that is, well, HOT!

One of the students was concerned that the food at the restaurant might be too spicy for us. As such, she (very politely) excused herself and, stealthily, went across the street and bought three bowls of noodles–one each for me and my two New York colleagues. She was being proactive. This seemed like a great idea until we took our first bites of the ostensibly non-spicy noodles. Steam immediately came out of our ears! If it weren’t for the large, cold Chongqing beers on the table, we are not sure if we would have survived. Wow!

Glenn Geher
Source: Glenn Geher

A few nights later, some other students took us to an amazing hot pot restaurant at the top of the mountain in eastern Chongqing. This place was something else–with several outdoor terraces built into the mountain for dining. Well, of course, the students ordered the food for me and my colleagues as “non-spicy.” For the most part, we survived–and it was delicious. But wow, the food in Chongqing is so hot!

A few days later, I met up with a guy who explained why the food is so hot in this part of China. He said that it relates to ancient Chinese medicine, which is still very popular throughout many parts of China. This form of homeopathy often includes various hot spices. According to my friend, the idea is that these spices will make you sweat and that any toxins that are causing you illness will leave your body as a result.

Glenn Geher
Source: Glenn Geher

You know, based on my understanding of Darwinian medicine, this is not too far-fetched.

The Use of Spices as a Function of Geographical Latitude

Before exploring the question of whether this secret of ancient Chinese medicine may fit in with the framework of Darwinian medicine, it is important to establish whether the use of spices in foods actually tracks geographical latitude. That is, we should ask the question of whether cultures that are closer to the equator, in which there is a higher amount of biodiversity and, as such, a higher prevalence of parasites and microbes, use more spices in foods compared with cultures that are further from the equator.

Anecdotally, it seems like the answer is yes. When we think of nations with spicy foods, we think of places like Mexico, Ethiopia, Thailand, and India, among others. In fact, research on exactly this question found support for this exact thesis: Nations closer to the equator do tend to have more spice in their foods compared with their cold-weather counterparts (see FDA report, Risk Profile; Pathogens and Filth in Spices, 2017; Indu et al., 2016).

Darwinian Medicine and Spicy Foods

Darwinian medicine (see Nesse & Williams, 1995) is essentially the idea that we should examine questions of medicine from an evolutionary perspective. That is, instead of just providing medicine that fixes symptoms, we can use an understanding of biological evolution to provide us with a broader take on why symptoms exist. Such an understanding can ultimately help us figure out the best course to take in terms of treatment. Maybe pharmaceuticals are not always the best way to go!

One of the classic examples given in this field pertains to fever. No one likes a fever, that’s for sure! This said, from an evolutionary perspective, fever has a function. One of the common features of a fever is sweating. And whether we like it or not, sweating is actually useful. It rids our bodies of all kinds of cells, including, in fact, (in small quantities) dangerous toxins that are causing our illness (see Sears et al., 2012).

Glenn Geher
Source: Glenn Geher

So yes, this brings us back to Chongqing and ancient Chinese medicine. Sure, the chili peppers and assorted Chinese spices will make you sweat. They will make you cry. They might literally have steam coming out of your ears! And it is possible that these effects are taking small amounts of toxins out of your body (see Sears et al., 2012). Further, aside from taxing your physiology, spices have the capacity to reduce the pathogens in food (see FDA report, Risk Profile; Pathogens and Filth in Spices, 2017; Indu et al., 2016).

You know, humans have lived in China for a very long time and the folks there have come up with solutions to all kinds of hurdles related to survival. Perhaps the ancient Chinese healers were, in fact, the first on our planet to practice Darwinian medicine.

Bottom Line: If you like adventurous and natural foods, I say to put the Chongqing hot pot on your list.

References

FDA report (2017). Risk Profile; Pathogens and Filth in Spices, 2017. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Food and Drug Administration U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Indu, M.N., A.A.M. Hatha, C. Abirosh, U. Harsha, and G. Vivekanandan. 2006. Antimicrobial activity of some of the South Indian spices against serotypes of Escherichia coli, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes and Aeromonas hydrophila. Braz J. Micriobiol. 37(2):153-158.

Nesse RM, Williams GC: Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine, Times Books, New York,  1995.  

Sears, M. E.., Kerr, K. J., & Bray, R. I. (2012). Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead, and Mercury in Sweat: A Systematic Review. J Environ Public Health. 2012: 184745. Published online 2012 Feb 22. doi:  10.1155/2012/184745 PMCID: PMC3312275 PMID: 22505948