Nutrition tip: How (un)healthy ist spicy food?
Nutrition tip: How (un)healthy ist spicy food?
Some love it, others get heartburn. We’re referring to the spiciness of food caused by the addition of chilli, pepper etc. What makes food spicy, and what healing properties are associated with this “sensation”? (Foto: ©monticellllo)

Pain stimulus

Unlike sweet or sour substances, pungent substances are not identified by the taste buds on the tongue. Instead, they stimulate the heat and pain receptors in the mouth. The sensations range from warming and astringent (contracting) to painful. Thus, sharpness is not a flavour, but a reaction to pain. The active ingredients of these stimulants irritate the nerve cells in the oral mucosa, which are also activated when you burn your mouth. This explains the burning sensation of spicy food. The hotter the spicy foods are when eaten, the more intense the pain. Which spices trigger this stimulus?

From "mild" to "hot"

The following agitators are known:
  • Capsaicin in chilli
  • Piperine in pepper
  • Mustard oil in horseradish and mustard
  • Allicin in garlic
  • Gingerol in ginger

In capsicum plants, such as chillies, capsaicin is responsible for the pungency. This substance is a strong cause of a burning sensation in the mouth. Water does not help against the burn caused by chillies because capsaicin is fat-soluble, not water-soluble. Piperine, found in pepper, is milder. When horseradish, mustard or garlic are heated, some of their pungency is lost, as they are sensitive to heat. Capsaicin and gingerol are heat resistant.

Pungency is measurable

Pungency can be determined by Scoville Heat Units (SHU). The Scoville scale indicates how many millilitres of water are needed to dilute the concentration until the “heat” can barely be detected. For example, to neutralise 1 ml of Tabasco sauce (4,500 SHU), one would need 4.5 litres of water.

Scoville Scale
Scoville Spice/Vegetable
0 to 10 Sweet peppers
100 to 500 Hot peppers
2.500 to 8.500 Tabasco sauce
100.000 to 250.000 Habanero-chilli
2 Mio. Pepper spray

Spice makes us happy

The pungent substances cause the “hot” taste, while the resulting irritation of the mucous membranes and pain receptors in the mouth and stomach leads to the release of neurotransmitters (messenger substances), causing a strong dilation of the blood vessels and an increase in the permeability of the vessel walls, resulting in increased blood flow to the tissues. To endure the pain, endorphins (happy hormones) are released. Blood circulation is stimulated, the heartbeat is increased and digestion is stimulated by increased acid secretion and salivary production. Fatty foods, in particular, are easier to digest with a little spiciness. Those who frequently eat spicy foods can “harden” their pain receptors and get used to the pungency. Several studies have also shown that pungent substances have anti-carcinogenic, anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory effects.

Take care with sensitive stomachs

People with sensitive stomachs should enjoy spicy foods with caution. Those who suffer from heartburn, irritable bowel, kidney or bladder disease risk increasing the discomfort on already irritated gastric mucosa or on the kidneys. Small children should also not eat spicy foods, since their digestive tracts must gradually become accustomed to sharper food.

Cools and preserves

Agitators (especially capsaicin) also promote perspiration. Sweating lowers the body temperature and cools the body. This positive cooling side effect is particularly beneficial for people in warm climates. In Mexico and Thailand, between 25 and 200 mg capsaicinoids are consumed daily through the consumption of chillies. By contrast, in Central Europe, the value is only 1,5 mg per day. In addition, the pungent substance in chillies has an antibacterial effect. Thus, in the storage of food, the development of microorganisms is inhibited.


The positive effects of pungent substances clearly outweigh the negative. So, if you like hot spices like chillies, pepper etc., you can keep using them with a clear conscience. Those who rarely eat sharp foods should try to slowly increase their intake.

If you would like to find out more about spicy foods, we recommend the following websites: or

The Kornspitz® team is always happy to hear from you. If you have any questions, requests, suggestions or tips, please send an email to

Mag. Gerda Reimann-Dorninger
Nutrition Scientist

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