Myth Debunked: Spicy Food Doesn't Really Kill Taste Buds

Turns out, spicy buffalo wings don't hurt your taste buds.
Turns out, spicy buffalo wings don't hurt your taste buds. (Image credit: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic | GeeJo)

Go on — dribble a little more of that Cholula hot sauce on your breakfast taco. Take a generous scoop of the habanero salsa. Brave the Thai dish branded "extra spicy" by not one, not two, but three cartoon chili peppers on the margin of the menu. No need to hold back on account of your taste buds.

So says Paul Bosland, horticulturist, director of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University and identifier of several of the world's spiciest peppers. Spicy food's reputation as a taste-bud destroyer is just an extremely widespread misconception, Bosland said. The myth gets a boost from two main factors.

First off, the chemical capsaicin (the active ingredient in spicy peppers) makes mouths temporarily go numb, and the loss of sensation gives you the impression that your taste buds must be dying. They aren't.

"That numbness is your body protecting itself from pain," Bosland told Life's Little Mysteries. "It's an interesting phenomenon. What's happening is that your taste receptors are sending a signal to your brain that there's pain in the form of hotness or heat." (This happens because, through a weird evolutionary quirk, certain pain receptors in our nerve endings react to capsaicin in the same way they react to heat.) "And so your brain starts producing endorphins to block that pain, which causes numbness."

But the effect doesn't last. Even in the severest cases of mouth abuse, such as the consumption of an entire Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper (the spiciest fruit known to man), the numbness usually dissipates within 24 hours, Bosland said.

The second contributor to spicy food's spurious reputation as an annihilator of senses is the fact that our sense of taste really does diminish as we age. Like most other cells, the cells that make up each of our roughly 10,000 taste buds replace themselves over and over throughout our lives. But some of the cells eventually run out of steam, and can't muster another replacement cycle. Instead, they just die. Thus, taste buds become less dense and therefore less sensitive as we age. According to Bosland, some elderly people wind up with a very weak sense of taste, while others maintain good sensory sensation in their mouths until they die.

But the general decline in taste-bud sensitivity over time creates the impression that the little buds must get worn out — and what could be more wearisome than a plateful of hot wings? There is some logic to the myth that too much spice is to blame for the fact that a plain slice of bread doesn't seem nearly as delicious as it did when we were 5 years old. But it's a myth, nonetheless. [The Truths Behind 10 Old Wives' Tales]

So, the takeaway message here is that you only have so much time before your taste buds call it quits, and there's not much you can do about it. Better use 'em hard while you can.

Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover or Life's Little Mysteries @llmysteries. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Natalie Wolchover

Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the  Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.