Recently, I had the pleasure of dining at St. Elmo Steakhouse in Indianapolis. One of the items on their menu, even more popular than the steak, is the world famous shrimp cocktail. And sure, the shrimp are large and fresh, but it's the cocktail sauce that garners all the accolades.
With horseradish that's ground daily in-house, a full spoonful of the sauce will have your sinuses cleared in a matter of seconds, followed by a 10 second period of pain that is -- well, delightful.
But why are painful foods so pleasurable (at least to some of us)?
In reality, it has a lot to do with physiology. There's actually a science behind the pain. Let's take spicy peppers, for example.
First, it's important to know we don't actually "taste" spicy foods. It's actually a sensation, an experience. Hot peppers contain something called capsaicin that reacts with a protein located on our nerve cells. There aren't taste buds associated with spicy.
Next, those nerve cells send a signal to our brains that something is wrong. Spicy foods literally trick our brains into thinking we're being burned.
Finally, in response to that burning, our brain releases endorphins, which is the body's natural way to relieve pain. Add on an additional release of dopamine, which is responsible for a sense of reward and pleasure, and we get a full on food buzz that's compared to a "runner's high" or getting a tattoo.
So seek the painful foods, and you might find some pleasure.