The Science of Sriracha's Good Burn

The American Chemical Society breaks down the hot sauce in a video.
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In many of our kitchens, there sits a red bottle with a green cap. In the upper echelons of hot sauce, there is room for only a few, and sitting pretty next to Tabasco and Cholula is the red rooster that adorns the Sriracha bottle. And as it happens, there are chemical reasons why people find the hot sauce so delicious.

In the video below, the American Chemical Society, an organization dedicated to the promotion of chemistry, goes deep on Sriracha. They break down its main ingredients—red chili peppers, garlic, vinegar, salt, and sugar—as well as how the spicy sauce makes our mouths burn, and why we like it.

Spicy peppers, like the red chili, contain two chemicals called capsaicin and dihydrocapsaicin, which affect our mouths' TPRV1 receptor proteins. These receptors typically serve as a warning system when we eat something way too hot—more than 109 degrees Fahrenheit, the video says. Because capsaicin hits those receptors, too, we feel the "heat" of peppers in much the same way we would actual heat. 

To counteract that, the body releases pain-killing endorphins (similar to a runner's high), which is why spicy foods can make you feel happy, and at least part of why some fanatics grow and seek out peppers that are higher and higher on the Scoville scale, which measures chili pepper heat. (One contender for world's hottest pepper averages around 1.5 million Scoville units. A regular jalapeño, for comparison, clocks in at about 4000.)

NPR reports that the power of peppers may even have some applications for pain relief—Qutenza is a capsaicin pain relief patch that the FDA approved a few years ago.

Presented by

Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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