Why Do Spicy Foods Affect Our Mouth and Sinuses Differently?

Unveil the science behind the different sensations in your mouth and sinuses caused by capsaicin and allyl isothiocyanate in spicy foods.

Why Do Spicy Foods Affect Our Mouth and Sinuses Differently?
Photo by National Cancer Institute / Unsplash

When we indulge in spicy foods, we encounter a unique sensation of heat in our mouth or sinuses, depending on the type of spice involved.

This intriguing dichotomy can be attributed to specific chemical compounds found in different spicy foods.

Capsaicin and the Mouth

In many hot sauces and peppers, the fiery heat sensation is caused by the presence of capsaicin.

Unlike allyl isothiocyanate, capsaicin primarily affects the mouth due to its ability to remain in a liquid state.

Allyl Isothiocyanate and the Sinuses

Substances like wasabi, which commonly consist of a combination of horseradish and mustard, contain allyl isothiocyanate.

This compound, unlike capsaicin, is more volatile and readily evaporates in the mouth, allowing it to travel upwards into the sinuses with the airflow.

Interaction with the Nose

Although capsaicin typically impacts the mouth, individuals who have accidentally inhaled or sniffed a large amount of hot sauce can attest to its sensation in the sinues, leading to an uncomfortable fiery feeling.

Other Factors

Apart from chemical composition, individual sensitivity to these compounds can also influence whether the heat is felt in the mouth or sinuses.

Some people may find that substances, such as wasabi, produce a more intense response in their sinuses compared to others.

Evolutionary Perspective

The varying effects of capsaicin and allyl isothiocyanate in the mouth and sinuses may be linked to our evolutionary history.

While the ability to detect heat in the mouth can signal potential harm or spoilage in food, the sensation in the sinuses might serve as a protective mechanism against inhaling irritants or pathogens.

Culinary Implications

The distinct effects of these compounds on the mouth and sinuses have also significantly influenced culinary traditions and flavor pairings.

Understanding these interactions can enhance our appreciation of different cuisines and help us create balanced and enjoyable spicy dishes.

The next time you savor a spicy meal, consider the intricate science behind the sensations you experience, from the mouth to the sinuses.