There really is a rush.
Chiles contain a substance called capsaicin (pronounced cap-say-ih-sin), which causes nerves to send out the message that they are, literally, on fire. In response to this illusory emergency, your brain releases endorphins, which are the body's natural version of morphine. So if the food you eat is hot enough, you'll end up with a bit of a buzz. Devotees compare it to a runner's high, which is also caused by endorphins. As with any drug, users build up a tolerance, which is why hot food lovers tend to increase the amount and power of the spice they apply.
"I started off thinking Tabasco was really hot," says Guiton, inventor of the habanero key lime cheesecake. "Now I use it the way other people use salt. Your palate gets adjusted." Perhaps fearful of attention from the DEA, Dewitt makes clear that chile peppers (the only natural source of capsaicin) are not physically addictive. He compares their effect to that of marijuana, saying that any addiction is purely psychological.
As chiles extend their reach, hot food lovers are becoming more discriminating. The days when creators focused solely on heat levels are over, some observers say. Recently, the trend has moved toward an emphasis on subtlety, especially fruitiness. "The old hot for hot's sake has leveled off," says Jordan, the supplier. "People are focusing more on flavors."
Not everyone is a convert. Although she now buys her hot sauce at Wal-Mart, Judy Howle must still moderate her cooking. "I have to make it mild for my husband, and spice mine up after," she says with a sigh. "If I don't, I have to listen to him fuss."
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written by David Kohn