Planet Earth

Why Sriracha Burns So Good

D-briefBy Carl EngelkingFeb 25, 2014 8:50 PM

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Any Sriracha devotee knows the spicy condiment will add a little zing to just about anything that’s edible. But in addition to spicing up a meal, the famous rooster sauce also gives you a naturally produced high. Sriracha is made with a simple recipe of ground red chili peppers, vinegar, salt, sugar and some preservatives. The blend is so potent that Sriracha factories emit a problematically spicy pollution---the subject of a current lawsuit in California. The secret of the sauce's spiciness is the subject of a recent American Chemical Society video, unlocking the mystery of why Sriracha burns so good.

Red Hot Chili Peppers

The peppers in Sriracha, not surprisingly, are the key ingredient, and two key chemical compounds in those red-hot chili peppers are what give you the kick in the mouth: capsaicin and dihydrocapsaicin. When ingested, these molecules trick our brains into thinking our mouths are literally burning. Specifically, capsaicin variants bind and open up a nerve receptor on the tongue, called TRPV1. Temperatures higher than 109 degrees Fahrenheit activate these receptors, as do capsaicin compounds, telling your brain that your tongue is touching something hot. Allyl isothiocyanate, a heat-inducing compound in mustard and wasabi, will also perform the same trick as the capsaicin compounds.  Sensing our pain, our nervous system releases a shot of endorphins, the same chemicals that float around our bodies during sex, to give us a natural, pain-relieving high. So next time someone claims their Sriracha-drenched potato chips are better than sex, they may not be speaking figuratively.

Measuring the Heat

In terms of the big picture, Sriracha is really just the B-league for heat-seeking foodies. The Scoville scale, based on subjective testers' ratings, measures the wallop of spicy foods. A sweet pepper has a Scoville rating of zero. Sriracha sauce, on the other hand, usually falls between 1,000 to 2,000 Scoville units. By comparison, a habanero pepper rocks the scales at 350,000 Scoville units. If you’re really in the mood to show off for your friends, or are seeking a potent natural high, you could give the new heavyweight champion, the Carolina Reaper, a try. The take-no-prisoners pepper from North Carolina’s Ed Currie weighs in at 2.2 million Scoville units. We'll stick with our Sriracha, please.

Photo Credit: cookbookman17/Flickr 

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