Don’t Like Spicy Food but Feel Left Out? Train Your Taste Buds

The sauces on the table are left untouched – plain is fine, thank you.

Is that some kind of red flake? Better to hack around.

Are you traveling to a country known for its fiery cuisine? Cross your fingers for the one mild dish on the menu.

Those who love spicy foods may find these behaviors deplorable. But for those struggling with spiciness and culinary heat, they can be part of a routine food negotiation, walking around potential landmines that are causing excruciating pain and making the food all but inedible.

Resistance to spiciness can provoke both shame and ridicule from others who view their love of spiciness as an act of courage or a sign of refined taste. Others who don’t like the spiciness – myself included – could counter it, oh, it really hurts, and how could anyone enjoy this sensation?

But for those looking to wipe their dislike off and open up to a much wider world of flavors and experiences, experts offer consolation: yes, most people can practice eating spicy foods.

“It’s absolutely possible,” said John E. Hayes, professor of food science and director of the Sensory Evaluation Center at Penn State University. “We have the laboratory data to show that you can increase your tolerance in just a few weeks.”

For some people, it can take a lot longer than a couple of weeks. However, experts say that there doesn’t seem to be any genetic factors that prevent most people from enjoying spicy foods. It’s more about repeated exposure.

Alissa A. Nolden, professor of food science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, conducted an experiment on people who said they disliked spicy foods.

For three weeks, the researchers had the subjects rinse morning and evening with a mouthwash that contained capsaicin, the active component in peppers that creates a burning sensation. They were asked to record how intense they found the heat each time.

The researchers observed “a large change in the intensity rating,” said Dr. Nolden.

Much of people’s different perceptions can be traced back to the types of foods they ate as children, said Mary-Jon Ludy, professor and chair of the Department of Public Health and Allied Health at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. A child who grew up in Mexico or India, or was raised in the United States by parents who cooked spicy foods, is more likely to seek spiciness as an adult than a child who grew up on milder diets.

Dr. Ludy herself grew up without spicy food and didn’t try it until she went to an Indian restaurant at college. It “set my mouth on fire,” she said. Although she now likes spicy food, she still does not enjoy more intense heat.

“For people who don’t consume spicy foods regularly, even a small amount seems to overwhelm the ability to experience taste and enjoy the other components of food,” said Dr. Ludy.

Those who learned to like spicy foods as adults often tell a similar story: they slowly increased their exposure, tried medium buffalo wings after they got used to mild buffalo wings, or gradually added chilli flakes to their meals. Some people say they adjusted their tastes quickly. Others say it took years.

Dr. Hayes of the Sensory Evaluation Center says there is little to show for the effort. Unlike beer or coffee, which some people find uncomfortable at first but appreciate for their immediate effects, spicy foods are reluctant to feel positive after trying it, he said.

One technique he recommends is to take a page from a dog or child’s training. Reward a person who is reluctant to eat spicy foods by offering verbal praise, positive affirmation, or other incentives.

But those taking the trip should be aware that they may develop a willingness to eat spicy food without ever developing the burning cravings seen in others, said Dr. Hayes.

“You could get more tolerant while still hating it,” he said.

Sara Kay, a 32-year-old in Bratislava, Slovakia who grew up in Rockville, Md., Said it wasn’t difficult to avoid spicy foods for most of your life. Her parents’ cuisine was delicious, but not spicy. She later attended a cooking school in France, where the kitchen didn’t require much heat.

Her turning point came in 2013 when a friend brought her to Xi’an Famous Foods in New York. She tried a salad that was numbingly hot, but despite the pain, she still loved the taste.

“I cry while eating this salad, but I felt like I had to hug it,” she said.

After that, she added Frank’s red hot sauce to other dishes and then Sriracha. She has trained herself to enjoy it more and more and now appreciates being able to order more items from the menu, she said.

For Shane Leigh, 46, his long-standing aversion to spicy foods was wrapped up in his identity problems, he said.

The son of two Jamaican immigrants who often cooked with jerk sauce and made curry goat and chicken, he grew up in the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn with people who were largely European, including many Italians and Irish. To adapt, he thought, he must shy away from his inheritance, including his food.

“There was a breakup for me with what I was living at home and what I thought was the route to popularity when I left the house: hamburgers, hot dogs and pizza,” he said.

But in his 30s he became more interested in his legacy. And his wife, the daughter of Hong Kong immigrants, also disliked spicy food.

So they slowly worked to adopt the sharpness together and gradually built up their tolerance over several years. Now they have both adjusted and even crave foods that they previously couldn’t stand.

“Hugging the food from where my parents came from is like coming home you didn’t know you needed,” said Mr. Leigh.

And now your author will confess that this was self-help disguised as reporting, as my inability to handle sharpness has resulted in significant social costs.

Sometimes I have no need or desire to adjust because it is an intense pain and I am nowhere near enjoying it.

If other people were enjoying being slapped in the face while eating and insisted that something was wrong with me for not enjoying being slapped in the face while eating, I wouldn’t ask that they be me hitting harder and harder until I started enjoying it. I would wonder why not everyone ate their dinner without being hit and I would be glad I avoided that fate.

However, I realize that this approach to food has its limits.

It’s no fun embarrassedly asking friends to try curries for you at the Indian restaurant, or disappointing everyone by asking if a common dish can be served bland or admitting that you can’t split up the companions of your favorite Starter.

I am often told that not only do I miss out on flavors, but also the way they are woven into kitchens from other cultures that I would otherwise love to experience.

So I’m working on it. Maybe one day it will be nice to be beaten.

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