Why is American food getting spicier?

Here is one hypothesis:

…some food scientists and market researchers think there is a more surprising reason for the broad nationwide shift toward bolder flavors: The baby boomers, that huge, youth-chasing, all-important demographic, are getting old. As they age, they are losing their ability to taste – and turning to spicier, higher-flavor foods to overcome their dulled senses.  Chiefly because of degenerating olfactory nerves, most aging people experience a diminished sense of taste, whether they realize it or not. But unlike previous generations, the nation’s 80 million boomers have broad appetites, a full set of teeth, and the spending power to shape the entire food market.

I’d be surprised if that explained more than five percent of what is going on.  Younger people are also preferring spicier food.  Western Europe has an older population, but I don’t see them (UK aside) falling for spicy food at a comparable rate as are Americans.  Nor does Naples, Florida have much spicy food outside of its Haitian community.  Instead America has more immigrants, and more restaurants run by immigrants.  Spicy foods are addictive.  Most importantly, spicy ethnic food is often better than what we had before, which indeed was usually horrible.  Sometimes the best explanation is the simplest one.

I might add that what is eaten is hardly very spicy at all, at least not to my palate.

Thanks to Michael Makowsky, a loyal MR reader, for the pointer.


It's a shift from the bland English tradition that was the basis of the origins of the US, to a more international variety. Most Asian and South American cuisines use more hot spices than in northern Europe.

As more people from these regions move to the US they bring their cultures with them. Others find them acceptable as well. There are no complicated explanations needed.

Don't forget Nexium Pepcid etc

South American food, spicy?

Paul Rozin (Psychology, UPenn) has been studying eating behaviors and specifically spicy food for years. There are a small handful of things we consume that are initially highly unpleasant, but that we work to develop a taste for. Some, like beer or coffee, are likely tolerated for pleasant side effects that outweigh the initial unpleasant taste.

But spicy foods are funny because they don't have a drug component like alcohol or caffeine. Once people start eating them, they really tend to like them a lot, though, even if the initial experience is negative.

Last I saw him speak, he didn't have a specific answer to the question. But iirc, the idea behind the best guess was that the "pain" spicy foods evoke triggers an internal analgesic response (e.g., endorphins) that is rewarding. And since it isn't a real pain sensation, it may be a cheap way of fooling your body into a positive response (like a thrill ride response to fake the positive elements of a response to danger).

This isn't necessarily different than your tossed off, "spicy foods are addictive." It's just some theory as to why that might be somewhat true.

...robertfeinman....didn't you say the same thing Tyler did?

I might add that what is eaten is hardly very spicy at all, at least not to my palate.

next time i'm in DC we def. should get lunch ;-)

Spices from the tropics were always a luxury item to medieval Europeans, and now their descendants can afford more of them.

Spicy plants are more common at lower latitudes because spices are commonly anti-parasite poisons evolved to protect the plant from the teeming variety of parasites found more in year-round warm climates than wintry climates. (Also, more biodiversity is greater in the tropics due to more specialization because of fewer seasonal swings). Thus, 15th Century Europe's equivalent of the space race of the 20th Century was to find shipping routes to the Spice Islands of the East Indies to bring back peppers so that meat could be preserved longer against parasites.

Thus, cuisines get blander the farther north you go (as Garrison Keillor's jokes about Norwegian cooking show), in part because there are so few spicy plants growing at latitudes where winter kills off most parasites.

As for food not being all that spicy to your palate, could habituation be at work? You have eaten spicy food in places where the population is habituated, and so demand more spice for the same kick that people who are not habituated get at lower doses. What I consider blandish my wife finds untolerably spicy.

You are now habituated and so find many US restaurants' servings too bland. If you went to Norway for a while, I wonder if on your return you would still say that the spicy food in the US was not all that spicy.

Once Leno told a joke: Americans are eating x% more Mexican food now, why? Because we have x% more Mexicans now.

As others pointed out, it seems that the new waves of immigrants (Chinese, Southeastern Asian, Indian, Mexican) like spicier food than the bland food in the Anglo-German tradition. I doubt the Asians and Indians make much difference, but I wouldn't count out the Latinos.

Long live Jalapeño!

Is it an issue of habituation or damage? If I give up spicy food will my senses return to their original state within weeks or months?

Loud music does permanent damage, requiring ever louder music -- does spicy food permanently impair the ability to sense lower levels of the chemicals?

And is the addictiveness of spicy food similar to the addictive properties of tanning? The underlying mechanism - pain signals releasing natural endorphins which reinforce the behavior -- would seem to be the same.

There are many Chinese dishes that consist of boiling food in a bowl with an insane amount of peppers. I can eat the dishes at the beginning, but once the water begins evaporating you're left with meat and veggies soaking in almost pure pepper essence. As a Russian there said to me, "what the hell is the point of burning your tongue?" I like some spicy foods, but I don't work to build up a resistance. It makes as much sense to me as doing whiskey shots at every meal to build up alcohol resistance, so I can say, "I might add that what is drunk is hardly very strong at all..."

In Indian cuisine, there's always some spice. But the idea of eating "spicy food" is usually reserved to special occasions like dinner for a guest or going out to a restaurant.

In the past 10 years, however, the food that Indians eat at home has become much more spicy. People like the addicting special occasion spicy food, and now want to eat like that all the time. Cheap, ready made masala mixes make it possible to eat spicy everyday.

People with deficient taste buds always seem to indulge in spice macho.

People with deficient palates and bravery always seem to avoid strong spicy food.

Here's a brand new explanation: Family structure.

In generations past, food was cooked at home, by Mum, for the whole family including a bunch of young children.

Young children hate hot spicy food.

So food had to be bland, and even when children weren't present, the audience had not developed a taste for spices. (i.e. they are these people who can't tell the difference between chili, peppercorns, wasabi and cumin, and consider them all to be "hot")

Nowdays of course, entire goups of the population have no children around, and so can immerse themselves in adult tastes.

Europeans on the other hand, are still mentally children :)

Now a lot of food

Twenty years ago, when I was a boy, a family visit to my great-grandfather in Albequerque meant a trip to the Furr's Cafeteria, whose menu featured flavorless favorites like "beef boiled until it is grey" and "green beans boiled until they are grey." Most of our fellow diners could have been described as elderly. Fast forward a few years, when I was on the high school debate team, my two-years-from-retirement debate coach would threaten to make us eat at Furr's when we were on out-of-town trips. He made good on his threat once, and I noticed that the food was much the same and the patrons were still elderly. I always assumed that elderly people enjoyed eating at Furr's because they couldn't taste very well anyway so the bland food didn't bother them. Keep in mind that this was the conclusion of a callow 16-year old, but I still think there is something to this.

My observation does not jibe with what I am reading here, though. Why are the baby boomers' tastes heading in the opposite direction from those of their parents? Perhaps I don't have enough data points to make a realistic assesment of the tastes of the Greatest Generation, but somehow, I have a hard time imagining my grandfather developing a taste for Thai food all of the sudden.

That is a good point with the baby boomer's and all, i was just thinking of young people. If you think about just the change in fast food its amazing. All "good ol' American" burger joints are carrying spicier things. KFC for instance with there buffalo wings and ton of different spices. And obviously it is very profitable or else it wouldn't be a big hit. Most places just add spice to the food they already had. They offer a regular and a seasoned version. So why not for a few more pennies make a lot more dollars. I believe that the younger generation has a great influence on it. It just seems like unless something has some seasoning on it its not as good, or at least in my opinion. And you always have someone "dare ya" to eat the hottest type of wings or sauce, you do it and you figure out its good so you stick with it. Not to mention the old peoples taste buds are fried. So if you can make some money by throwing spice into the equation why not.

de gustibus non est disputandum?

Nice to see you mention that little corner of the world, Naples, that I lived in for eight long years. I've lived in Atlanta since then and I see many more spicy restaurants per capita than I did in Naples. One of the more popular restaurants there served Irish food, an almost intolerably bland cuisine.

I also wonder about how tastes in beer of differed throughout generations. I'm a bit older than college age and I immediately go for German/dark English type beers over the American beers not named Sam Adams or Sweetwater. Yet my dad finds Newcastle or Bass to be near intolerable and goes for the Coors light instead. He even drinks Heineken, a beer I have always found intolerable for some reason. My friends, too, mostly go for the "beer snob" type beers when they aren't drinking just to get drunk.

I think most of those explanations sound plausible. Allow me to add these:

1. Corporatization of ethnic culture

Spicy Cajun food has been available in my south Louisiana home for at least 200 years. Chinese food has been available in California for at least 130 years. Spicy Mexican-Spanish food has been available across the Southwestern U.S. for at least 500 years.

The past 40 years saw the development of the national restaurant chain concept. Ethnic flavors were spread nationwide by corporations such as General Mills (now Darden Restaurants), Pillsbury and KFC (now YUM brands), and Brinker international (Chile's, On the Border, Romano's Macaroni grill).

2. White House leadership

Both Ronald Reagan and especially Bill Clinton encouraged American ethnic cuisine for inaugerations and state dinners. Paul Prudhomme's blackened redfish was imitated nationwide after it was served at Reagan's inaugeration. That led to the development of Cajun restaurants in every major city.

3. Jimmy Buffet

When I worked at General Mills Restaurant group, we saw firsthand how the song Margaritaville drove patrons into our Mexican restaurant chain. Profits from millions of margaritas allowed Mexican chain restaurants to spread into virgin territories such as Indianapolis, Richmond, and Charlotte.

I don't think any one factor can explain the rise of ethnic cuisine in the U.S. To me, it has benn a forty year evolution driven by at least a half dozen trends.

How about this: People eat at restaurants more. Restaurants make most of their profits on drinks. The spicier you make the food, the more people drink.

Rising prosperity over the last twenty five years has led to more people going out to eat. When you prepare food at home, you spice it so the person who doesn't like spicy food can still eat it. When you go out everyone can order food suited to their own level of spiciness. Also a bigger market for restaurant foods mean niche foods such as super spicy food can thrive as well.

Chicken without spices is almost inedibly bland

Which is another way of saying 'I eat cheap industrial chicken'. (Sorry, mike, but your asbestos-lined colon isn't that impressive.)

Spice has been a status indicator in Europe and European settler cultures for at least five centuries. (Not without resistance: doctors were writing anti-spice pamphlets in the early 1700s, in terms that darrenbk emulates with gusto.) Once spices become widely available, the status indicator shifts to intensity -- the 'asbestos gut' types -- or obscurity: Szechuan pepper, grains of paradise, etc.

In northern European cultures, spice has its traditional place, just not so much on the plate: you'll find plenty of peppercorns in things like pickle brines.

I'd believe that there's definitely some side effect. My girlfriend generally has only been exposed to very bland food, while I like highly spicy food. We have been to a few restaurants that had a spicy sauce bar that allowed her to get a not very hot sauce and me to get a "brings tears to your eyes" sauce. Once she tried a little of my sauce, and about a half hour after consuming she acted more than a little tipsy for about an hour or two.

I wish people would not use the term "spicy" when what they really mean is "hot". Spices, for the most part are not hot, but they have distinctive tastes. Hence, French and Italian cuisines are "spicy" compared to those of the British isles, but these cuisines are not "hot". There are also plenty of Indian and Chinese dishes that are very well "spiced" but are not "hot". Try to use the term "hot" when referring to dishes that are seasoned with substances that can be measured in Scoville units.

Most Boomers I know like spicy food about as much now as they did when they were younger. In other words, most grew up without spicy food and are now still averse to it.

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