Remember to always self-medicate responsibly.

By Ethan L. Johns
September 28, 2017

Have you ever wondered why all festive occasions are made so much more festive when beer is thrown into the mix? It could be the alcohol, which lowers the inhibitions and gets the old talkbox gabbing. Or, according to scientists, we can thank special molecules that float around in our favorite lightly-carbonated beverage and play with our brain’s neurons.

Hordenine, a chemical compound that can be found both in beer and in malted hops, one of the beverage’s essential ingredients, can do some pretty cool stuff to your mood, says one recent study. The compound travels to the human brain, and once there it binds with dopamine receptors, causing light euphoria which can be perceived as a mood boost. Normally, dopamine is the chemical that activates dopamine receptors, creating a perceived feeling of happiness. But Hordenine bypasses the need for dopamine release (which can occur during activity such as eating rich foods, having sex or using drugs like cocaine) and directly activates receptors, making us feel similar effects.

Now that scientists has discovered this compelling evidence as to why beer makes us feel good, we think that we at least deserve a little “told ya so,” since we basically knew this all along. So next time you’re feeling down in the dumps, grab some friends, share a cold one and let that Hordenine do its thing. In moderation, of course.

Eating “Delicious” Pizza Triggers Opioids in Your Brain

New research has found that eating pizza triggers opioids in your brain, but they’re not the same ones present in heroin or other similar drugs. Instead, these are naturally-occurring opioids that have been found to be released when listening to music, having sex and eating food.

The study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, found that eating in general triggers a “significant” release of opioids.

For the study, researchers tested participants after an overnight fast, after drinking a tasteless nutritional drink and after eating “delicious” pizza. According to the report, “eating a delicious pizza led to significant increase of pleasant feelings,” but surprisingly the nutritional drink actually released more opioids than the pizza.

Opioids are thought to be linked to obesity and other food disorders, so the fact that non-“delicious” food can trigger more opioids than seemingly addictive food is a surprise to scientists.

According to one of the study’s researchers, Jetro Tuulari, “This creates a basis for future research and hopefully we will find ways to study and describe the development and predictors of addiction, obesity, and eating disorders.”

In other news, “The Mountain” from Game of Thrones reveals his insane diet plan and weight regime.

Can Spicy Food Kill You?

If you’ve ever diced a habanero bare-handed and then absentmindedly touched your eye, you know that handling spicy food can hurt. That stinging and burning pain can last beyond several flushes with water.

It goes away eventually, but you have to wonder — if touching a spicy pepper hurts that much, can eating it do you even more harm? Let’s review the evidence, shall we?

That’s one hot bod

In 2016, a 22-year-old chef from Britain traveled to Indonesia, where he dared to try a dish called “death noodles,” which is reportedly 4,000 times spicier than Tabasco sauce. Ben Sumadiwiria considered himself a pro when it came to spicy foods, but he met his match with this dish. As the Metro reports, the noodles were so spicy that Sumadiwiria actually went deaf for a full two minutes or more. They also made him turn red, get dizzy and throw up, but those pale in comparison to, you know, losing the ability to hear.

As Live Science explains, hearing loss is within the range of side effects of eating very spicy food:

The throat and the ears are connected by conduits known as the Eustachian tubes, which help equalize pressure in the inner ear. When the nose starts producing lots of snot — as it does when you scarf down something spicy — this can block the Eustachian tubes, said [Dr. Michael Goldrich, an otolaryngologist at the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Jersey.]

This would create the feeling of your hearing being blocked, much like when you have a really bad cold. In Sumadiwiria’s case, the effect was more extreme.

Feel the burn

At a “world’s hottest chilli contest” in Scotland in 2011, many of the first 10 participants ended up writhing on the floor in pain, fainting and vomiting after eating the Kismot Restaurant’s red-hot dish called the Kismot Killer. Two people ended up in the hospital. (The next round of participants wisely declined to take part in the contest, The Telegraph reports.)

And in Brighton, England, a local newspaper tells the story of how two of its reporters fared when they sampled a local eatery’s XXX Hot Chilli Burger, which the owner claims to be spicier than pepper spray. “It was hard to walk. I needed to drink milk to neutralize the burning, which was hard because I was hyperventilating so much my hands had seized up,” said reporter Ruari Barratt. The other unlucky participant said he was in so much pain, he felt like he was dying.

Hurts so good

Why does spicy food hurt your stomach, and really, your whole body? First, a little lesson on two terms: Scoville units and capsaicin.

Scoville units measure how hot a pepper is. (For perspective, a poblano is 1,000 to 2,000 units, a serrano is 6,000 to 23,000 units, a Scotch bonnet is 100,000 to 325,000 units, and the Carolina Reaper, the spiciest pepper in the world, is 1.5 million to 2.2 million units.) And capsaicin is a compound in peppers that makes them hot. The Scoville heat score measures the amount of capsaicin in the pepper.

Once in your body, capsaicin stimulates nerves that respond to increases in temperature. They’re the same pain receptors that respond to injuries, but in this case, high amounts of capsaicin make them react as if you’re being burned from the inside out. As Barry Green of John B. Pierce Laboratory in New Haven, Connecticut, explains for Scientific American:

Capsaicin sends two messages to the brain: ‘I am an intense stimulus,’ and ‘I am warmth.’ Together these stimuli define the sensation of a burn, rather than a pinch or cut… Most people think of the ‘burn’ of spicy food as a form of taste. In fact, the two sensory experiences are related but are very distinct. They innervate the tongue the same way, but the pain system that is triggered by capsaicin is everywhere on the body, so one can get thermal effects everywhere.

Green goes on to write, “We humans are peculiar creatures — we’ve taken a nerve response that normally signals danger and turned it into something pleasurable.” Pleasure is the key word, because after eating a very spicy pepper and before it makes you sick, there’s an endorphin rush that blocks the pain and makes you feel great… until they wear off and reality sets in.

Burn risk

So yes, eating extremely spicy food can indeed hurt you. But can it kill you? According to Paul Bosland, professor of horticulture at New Mexico State University and director of the Chile Pepper Institute, it could, but our bodies likely wouldn’t let that happen.

“Theoretically, one could eat enough really hot chilies to kill you,” he told Live Science. “A research study in 1980 calculated that three pounds of extreme chilies in powder form — of something like the Bhut Jolokia [known as ghost peppers] — eaten all at once could kill a 150-pound person. However, one’s body would react sooner and not allow it to happen.”

Basically, you may have a dozen hours of discomfort and pain ahead of you — and possibly heartburn so severe that it mimics the symptoms of a heart attack, as was the experience of this Bon Appetit writer — but these are relatively short-term punishments compared to death.

There’s more good news: Making your meals picante — at a more reasonable level — also has some health benefits, including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects. It also can boost your metabolism.

For spicy food lovers, that’s probably music to their ears — and antacid to their stomachs.

How to Cook the Perfect Burger Using Science

Summer is too short to waste on bad burgers. Unfortunately, with every grilling season comes a preponderance of pathetically pale, flavorless patties, disgracefully laminated with hard, yellow plaster parading as cheese. These sad sandwiches are the unfortunate consequence of the continually eroding relationship between humans and their meat.

Fortunately, this broken relationship is nothing a bit of scientific counseling can’t fix.

While the characteristics of a perfect burger vary between patty enthusiasts, there is one element that every aficionado can agree is crucial to a truly spiritual burger experience: the robust and mysterious “fifth flavor” known as umami. This flavor goes beyond salty, sweet, sour, and bitter, encompassing the sensation of “meatiness” or “brothiness.” Umami is a linguistic attempt to capture the sublime: a hamburger’s rich, salt-laced, fat and earthy mineral juices cascading across your tongue and luxuriating in your mouth.

It’s also a Japanese word that roughly translates to “pleasantly savory,” and scientists use it to describe the flavor we experience when chemical compounds called glutamates and related molecules bind certain receptors on the tongue.

These compounds are naturally found in meat, together with other intensely flavored foods such as anchovies, mushrooms, and fermented items like fish sauce and miso. When you savor a juicy beef burger or a hunk of salty, dank blue cheese, what you’re appreciating is the flood of umami across the tongue.

Umami is a natural quality of some foods, but we’re not slaves to nature’s unjust distribution of glutamate molecules. Scientists and chefs alike have discovered how to boost umami through various forms of manipulation. And when it comes to burgers, everything comes down to the crust.

The most flavorful patties share a certain look: They’re a rich, warm brown, they glisten with natural juices, and, most importantly, their surfaces sport a deeply hued crust. It’s in these darkened, crisp bits that a burger’s umami succulence is concentrated.

Those bits are created through a chemical process called the Maillard reaction, which describes the interplay of amino acids and sugars in food when it’s heated to a temperature over 285 degrees Fahrenheit. When meat is cooked at such high temperatures, those basic building blocks react to synthesize completely new molecules that burst with flavor, as well as dark brown pigments called melanoidins that give seared foods their appealingly dark shade.

When the Maillard reaction takes place in meat, many of the flavor compounds produced belong to a class of molecules called butyrates. (Butyric acid, for what it’s worth, is what gives butter its full-bodied, delicious flavor.) It’s thought that butyrates, in the same way as glutamate, bind the umami taste receptors on the tongue, ultimately giving burgers and other meats cooked at high temperatures their ambrosial appeal.

If all that delectable umami flavor is concentrated in a burger’s crust, and the Maillard reaction happens only on the burger’s surface, then the key to reaching peak umami must be optimizing the amount of surface area to be crusted.

That’s the conclusion that J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, a chef and managing culinary director of Serious Eats, came to in his epic quest to determine the ultimate flavor-augmenting, burger-cooking technique in 2014, and he used a basic geometry principle to make it happen: instead of cooking his lump of beef as one whole patty, he splits it into two thinner patties, which he smashes onto a very hot griddle and flips, browning either side. Barbecue die-hards take note; if optimizing only the meat’s flavor is the end goal, then using a grill won’t cut it because it simply doesn’t allow a good, area-broadening smash.

That said, smashing patties is controversial in the burger community — it does force a lot of juice out, resulting in a drier patty — but there’s no denying that it’s the best way to make the most of a burger’s crispy, salty, mouthwatering crust.

Umami begins with a burger’s sear, but it doesn’t end there. Garnishes — especially strong, salty cheese — can take its savoriness to the next level. An article in the Journal of Food Science in 2007 suggested that cheddar and Swiss cheeses had significant amounts of umami-making compounds, but funky Parmesan is the only one to have been called the “most umami ingredient in Western cookery.”

Whatever cheese you choose to adorn your burger, Lopez-Alt suggests sandwiching it between your two thin, sizzling patties as soon as they come off the grill so that it melts evenly across their surfaces, ensuring that every bite of beef gets an equal share of the rich, fatty cheese blanket — which should compensate for any lost juiciness and barrage your tongue with a final blast of umami to boot.