While using Cook's Illustrated "American Classics" cookbook -- which has become my standard source for American foods -- I came across this interesting article. This explains a lot about how some of us can't handle certain spicy foods, no matter how we try to "get used to it". This article explains why, and how there are benefits to being a sensitive or "super" taster. It gave me insight into wine, too, which until very recently has all been made by men. I've read that a larger percentage of men can't taste bitter (which explains why I have such an aversion to black coffee that so many people love). If a winemaker can't taste bitter he will pass on a bitter wine, which will be unpalatable to those of us who can. I wonder how many winemakers are supertasters or just medium tasters? I wonder how many famous chefs? :) Very interesting stuff:
Science: How Come You Don't Think It's Hot?
One enduring mystery among those partial to spicy food is why people have such varying tolerances for the heat of chile peppers. As it turns out, there are several reasons why your dinner companion may find a bowl of chili only mildly spicy, while the same dish causes you to frantically summon a waiter for a glass of milk to cool the heat. (Milk, not water, is the thing to drink whn you want to cool the fire in your mouth.)
Your dining partner may be experiencing "temporary desensitization." The phenonmenon, discovered by Barry Green of the Monell Chemical Senses Institute in Philadelphia, occurs when you eat something spicy hot, then lay off for a few minutes. As long as you keep eating chiles, their effect keeps building. But if you take a break -- even for as few as two to five minutes, depending on your individual susceptibility -- you will be desensitized when you go back to eating the chiles. A dish with the same amount of chiles will not seem as hot the second time around.
The more likely explanation, however, is that people who find chiles intensely, punishingly hot simply have more taste buds. According to Linda Bartoshuk, a psychophysicist at the Yale School of Medicine, human beings can be neatly divided into three distinct categories when it comes to tasting ability: unfortunate "nontasters" pedestrian "medium tasters," and the aristocrats of the taste bud world "supertasters".
This taste-detection pecking order appears to correspond directly to the number of taste buds a person possess, a genetically predetermined trait that may vary by a factor of 100. Indideed, so radical are the differences between these three types that Bartoshuk speaks of them as inhabiting different "taste worlds".
Bartoshuk and her colleagues discovered the extent of this phenomenon a few years ago when they carried out experiments using a dye that turns the entire mouth blue except for the taste papillae (structures housing taste buds and other sensory receptors). After painting part of the subjects' tongues with the dye, they were rather stunned at the differences they saw. One poor taster had just 11 taste buds per square centimeter, while one super-taster had 1,100 in the same area.
Further experiments confirmed that the ability to taste intensely directly corresponds to the number of taste buds. Researchers found that women are twice as likely as men to be supertasters, while men are nearly twice as likely as women to be nontasters.
What does this have to do with how hot you find chiles? It turns out that every taste bud in the mouth has a pain receptor literally wrapped around it. Along with the extra taste buds comes a greater sensitivity to pain. As a result, supertasters have the capacity to experience 60 percent more pain from casaicin, the chemical that gives chiles their heat.