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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The government's air quality plan at a glance

This plan is largely a plan to make more plans.

Do you plan on living in a small, rural hamlet for the next 23 years? Or postponing having children till 2040? For this is when the government intends to ban all new petrol and diesel cars (and vans) - the headline measure in its latest plan to tackle the UK's air pollution crisis.

If the above lifestyle does not appeal, then you had better hope that your local authority is serious about addressing air quality in your area, because central government will not be taking responsibility for other restrictions on vehicle use before this date. Former Labour leader Ed Miliband has tweeted that he fears the ban is a “smokescreen” for the weakness of the wider measures. 

Here’s an overview of what the new Air Quality plan means for you (Health Warning: not much yet).

Will the 2040 ban end cars?

No. Headlines announcing the “end of the diesel and petrol car” can sound a pretty terminal state of affairs. But this is only a deadline for the end of producing “new” fossil-fuel burning vehicles. There is no requirement to take older gas-guzzlers (or their petrol-head drivers) off the road. Plus, with car companies like Volvo promising to go fully electric or hybrid by 2019, the ban is far from motoring’s end of the road.

So what does the new plan entail?

This plan is largely a plan to make more plans. It requires local authorities to submit their own initial schemes for tackling the issue by the end of March 2018 and will provide a £255 million Implementation Fund to support this process. Interventions could include retrofitting bus fleets, improving concessionary travel, supporting cyclists, and re-thinking road infrastructure.  Authorities can then bid for further money from a competitive Clean Air Fund.

What more could be done to make things better, faster?

According to the government’s own evidence, charges for vehicles entering clean air zones are the most effective way of reducing air pollution in urban areas. Yet speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, Michael Gove described the idea as a “blunt instrument” that will not be mandatory.

So it will be down to local authorities to decide how firm they wish to be. London, for instance, will be introducing a daily £10 “T-charge” on up to 10,000 of the most polluting vehicles.

Does the 2040 deadline make the UK a world leader?

In the government’s dreams. And dreamy is what Gove must have been on his Radio 4 appearance this morning. The minister claimed that was in Britain a “position of global leadership” in technology reform. Perhaps he was discounting the fact that French President Emmanuel Macron also got there first? Or that India, Norway and the Netherlands have set even earlier dates. As WWF said in a press statement this morning: “Whilst we welcome progress in linking the twin threats of climate change and air pollution, this plan doesn’t look to be going fast or far enough to tackle them.”

Will the ban help tackle climate change?

Possibly. Banning petrol and diesel cars will stop their fumes from being released in highly populated city centres. But unless the new electric vehicles are powered with energy from clean, renewable sources (like solar or wind), then fossil fuels will still be burned at power plants and pollute the atmosphere from there. To find out how exactly the government plans to meet its international commitments on emissions reduction, we must wait for the 2018 publication of its wider Clean Air Strategy.

Will the plans stand up to legal scrutiny?

They're likely to be tested. ClientEarth has been battling the government in court over this issue for years now. It’s CEO, James Thornton, has said: “We’re looking forward to examining the government’s detailed plans, but the early signs seem to suggest they’ve still not grasped the urgency of this public health emergency.”

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.