Written by Emily Kerr
Mónica Avendaño-Rodríguez, Mayumi Juárez-Castro, Dayana Rodríguez-Caspeta, and Guadalupe Zavaleta-Vega were students in María Elena Cano-Ruiz’s science class when they did a science project studying the effectiveness of different palate relievers for individuals who had recently eaten chili peppers. The group decided to expand the project and published their work in the Journal of Emerging Investigators (JEI) last year.
María Elena Cano-Ruiz, the students’ instructor, explains that the group found a Youtube video where people reacted dramatically after eating chili peppers. Using homemade hot sauce, they tested the effectiveness of milk, ice-cream, water, olive oil, and soft-drinks as palate relievers on fellow students. The project went to the local science fair and won, after which the group decided to submit their article to JEI. Cano-Ruiz reports working with reviewers was very helpful, and the project has since become an exemplar for her new class.
I was able to interview Monica and Mayumi. The interviews, edited lightly for spelling and grammar, are below:
What led you to want to get involved in scientific research?
Mónica: It began as a project for the class Investigation and Statistics; our teacher let us choose a 4-5-member team and a topic that we liked. After reviewing several options, we decided that we would try something that had to do with spicy food and different ways to relieve the burning sensation.
Mayumi: We had to do a school project. We started to look around and we discovered several topics that interested us and we were curious about. We loved science classes, they were a lot of fun, so we decided to apply what we learned in our class on scientific research and decided to research capsaicin.
What led you to pick this project?
Mónica: When we were searching for topics, we found a video of a woman eating a Habanero thinking it was a sweet berry. It was hilarious. Then we found another video were two guys ate an extremely hot chili called the Carolina Reaper. They used ice cream to slow down the burn and it pretty much worked; so, we thought that it would be great to find out why. Our teacher liked the idea so much that she helped us to make this investigation as complete as possible.
Mayumi: First of all, we were curious to discover how one could get rid of the burning sensation we felt when we ate chilies. Second, we wanted to do a research that was fun and make us laugh.
While reading the literature related to your project, have you found any reason why some people seem to enjoy spicy food and others don’t? Is preference something that could be developed?
Mónica: Yes, but it depends on several things; it could be related to social factors; if someone grows up in a household or country where spiciness is common in their diet, is normal to develop a likeness for those kinds of foods. In other cases, people just like the burning sensation and learn to “enjoy” it over the time. Capsaicin acts, sometimes, much like caffeine; our polymodal nociceptors react to capsaicin by sending pain signals to our brain, just like adenosine receptors bond with the caffeine to make you feel awake. So, the more you drink coffee, the more receptors are developed, and the effects of the caffeine are minimized. Capsaicin, on the other hand, may take longer to affect the nociceptors but it can happen, making the burning sensation less painful in the future.
Mayumi: We didn't find an article that explains why some people like spicy food and some others don't, but what we found was that spicy food gives us a sensation of pleasure because the capsaicin inhibits the sensation of pain. Therefore, we feel pleasure and it causes a small addiction. Also, we found that people get used to spicy food, so the taste for it is developed.
Your experimental section explains that you had your participants eat a small amount of hot sauce, wait a brief period of time, then eat a palate reliever. This method gives good scientific reproducibility, but hot sauce is typically eaten on food. How might people’s responses to hot sauce differ in the context of eating it in an actual meal?
Mónica: The effects would be very different. When hot sauce is mixed with another ingredient, the burning sensation would be subtle because the capsaicin is distributed on the meal, so the amount of capsaicin eaten is smaller compared to a spoonful of hot sauce. This may cause that the participants with a high-level of tolerance would not need any palate reliever at all.
Mayumi: Their response would be the similar because the active substance capsaicin is the same in every chili, but the intensity of the burning sensation in the mouth, would depend on which type of food the person is eating. So, the burning sensation would be lower if food is involved.
Are there any challenges you faced executing this research that you did not expect going in?
Mónica: It was extremely difficult to find a way to keep in touch with the 12 participants and make an appointment to carry out the experiments. We had to follow them wherever they were. Sometimes, even the team wasn’t together because of our classes, making difficult to keep up with the research. For example, we won a prize for this research, but we had to split the team so two would present the project at the fair one day and then be at the ceremony the next day. I had to present the project with Mayumi.
Another challenge was the review of the paper, we didn’t expect it to be published so correcting was a little tedious, even when our teacher María was there to help us.
Mayumi: They were just one little problem with the panelists because we had many volunteers. They were a lot of panelists so we weren't able to gather them all at the same time and we have had to schedule the tasting over multiple days.
If you were to continue this research, what aspects would you like to explore further? What experiments might you consider doing?
Mónica: Personally; I would like to try other types of spicy food, from chilies to wasabi or mustard. Spiciness is related to different molecules that react differently than capsaicin when eaten.
Mayumi: I would like to research whether the pH and the temperature of the substances make some difference in the amount of relief.
Is there anything you would like to tell other young people interested in getting involved in scientific research?
Mónica: Research can sound overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. You can find one little thing that is amusing, weird or funny and make a research project about it; you don’t have to be that formal at the beginning. Gather your friends and have fun with the experiments and share your discoveries with the world however you want, and maybe one day you can publish your own work!
Mayumi: We would like to tell people who are starting to do research that if you love what you are doing, then your work is going to turn out wonderful. But you just have to be really persistent. It doesn't matter if the first time you don't get it right: you just have to try and try. Don't give up. Love what you do and it is going to be successful. And remember, an error might lead you to virtue.
How has this project influenced your future plans?
Mónica: In college, I have some subjects that are focused on sociological research and I think this helped to see the great potential a school project can have; even when my major doesn’t have much to do with science at all.
Mayumi: It helped me to figure out what I really wanted to do in life. Thanks to this project I won a scholarship to for a summer of investigation at a research center. I worked with some researchers and I was really surprised to discover how interesting and fulfilling the life of investigation is, so I hope to be involved in research work again later on in my life.