Peppers for sale at a market in Italy. Photo: Andreas Solara/AFP/Getty Images
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So hot right now: the peppers that prove there's a perv in all of us

My eyes and my nose streamed, it felt like someone had stuck a red hot poker through both of my ears and my heart was dancing a fast polka in my chest, but I also felt weirdly euphoric.

Maybe it’s all the fuss around Fifty Shades of Grey but I couldn’t help wondering recently, as I perused the pages of a website dedicated to oral torture, whether the human taste for chillies was as innocent as it might seem. The site’s jaunty motto said it all: “Your pain is our pleasure.” Lest anyone still be in any doubt as to the specialist nature of its wares, the names on the bottles were pleasingly unambiguous: “Pure Poison”, “Pain 100%” and, um, “Ass Reaper”. Many of them used the Grim Reaper as an advertising tool and came in coffin-shaped packaging. The most extreme stuff, the kind sold with a pipette for health and safety reasons, required you to read a disclaimer before purchase. (Don’t you just love a condiment which promises that “direct ingestion WILL cause burning sensations and panic”?)

Many of the customers for such niche products will be trying them for reasons that may fairly be described as ethically dubious, as another site wearily acknowledges, calling on “macho men, curryholics, stag parties, initiations, dares, show-offs” and “jilted lovers” to “please be careful if you are trying to stitch up a macho friend, attending a stag party or using them as part of an initiation ceremony” – advice that no doubt only serves to fan the flames of their excitement.

The reviews, however, suggest that a significant proportion of customers are seeking the heat for pure pleasure, pointing up the most interesting fact in all of this: we are the only species known to seek out negative sensations deliberately. You don’t see dogs whipping each other with sticks in the name of foreplay and you won’t find animals gorging themselves on wild chilli peppers (though birds, who can’t detect the heat, are enthusiastic consumers). A taste for pain seems to be one of the defining characteristics of being human.

Although it doesn’t feel like it when you’re eating them, chillies aren’t likely to cause any actual physical damage: capsaicin, the active component in the fruit (largely concentrated in the placenta, or the soft, pale stuff that binds the seeds to the flesh), hits the same receptors on the tongue that detect changes of temperature, tricking the brain into believing that you have eaten something very hot.

That knowledge is scant comfort when your tongue feels as if it’s about to combust. All young children are instinctively wary of hot foods – they have to be weaned on to them gradually. Chilli is an acquired taste. But why do we bother acquiring it?

People often talk about a chilli high, or a buzz. This is a classic no-pain-no-gain scenario, in which the body releases its natural painkillers, endorphins, to counteract the burning sensation caused by the capsaicin.

I can attest to the truth of this. Some years ago, a large supermarket chain introduced the bhut jolokia – described (at the time) as the world’s hottest chilli – and muggins here, as a serious reporter, was commissioned by a national newspaper to test it out.

Having stocked up on bread and yoghurt (and told my parents that I loved them), I grimly ate the tiny bastard whole, keeping it in my mouth for 30 long seconds before swallowing. Yes, my eyes and my nose streamed, it felt like someone had stuck a red hot poker through both of my ears and my heart was dancing a fast polka in my chest, but I also felt weirdly euphoric, in a fuzzy-headed kind of way – as though I’d narrowly cheated death, perhaps.

Was I tempted to finish the rest of the packet? Emphatically no. Nor have I felt the need for a capsaicin hit since. Perhaps, much like Fifty Shades of Grey, some people are just more into it than others. There’s nowt so queer as folk, as they say.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

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Donald Trump's healthcare failure could be to his advantage

The appearance of weakness is less electorally damaging than actually removing healthcare from millions of people.

Good morning. Is it all over for Donald Trump? His approval ratings have cratered to below 40%. Now his attempt to dismantle Barack Obama's healthcare reforms have hit serious resistance from within the Republican Party, adding to the failures and retreats of his early days in office.

The problem for the GOP is that their opposition to Obamacare had more to do with the word "Obama" than the word "care". The previous President opted for a right-wing solution to the problem of the uninsured in a doomed attempt to secure bipartisan support for his healthcare reform. The politician with the biggest impact on the structures of the Affordable Care Act is Mitt Romney.

But now that the Republicans control all three branches of government they are left in a situation where they have no alternative to Obamacare that wouldn't either a) shred conservative orthodoxies on healthcare or b) create numerous and angry losers in their constituencies. The difficulties for Trump's proposal is that it does a bit of both.

Now the man who ran on his ability to cut a deal has been forced to make a take it or leave plea to Republicans in the House of Representatives: vote for this plan or say goodbye to any chance of repealing Obamacare.

But that's probably good news for Trump. The appearance of weakness and failure is less electorally damaging than actually succeeding in removing healthcare from millions of people, including people who voted for Trump.

Trump won his first term because his own negatives as a candidate weren't quite enough to drag him down on a night when he underperformed Republican candidates across the country. The historical trends all make it hard for a first-term incumbent to lose. So far, Trump's administration is largely being frustrated by the Republican establishment though he is succeeding in leveraging the Presidency for the benefit of his business empire.

But it may be that in the failure to get anything done he succeeds in once again riding Republican coattails to victory in 2020.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.