Some like it hot: Testosterone predicts laboratory eating behavior
of spicy food
Laurent Bègue ⁎, Véronique Bricout, Jordane Boudesseul, Rébecca Shankland, Aaron A. Duke
University of Grenoble-Alpes, France
•We analyze the relationship between spicy food eating and endogenous testosterone.
•Testosterone is related with the quantity of hot sauce participants consumed.
•No correlation was observed between testosterone and a control substance.
Received 14 July 2014
Received in revised form 18 November 2014
Accepted 19 November 2014
Available online 25 November 2014
In the presentstudy, we analyzed the relationship between eating behavior of spicy food andendogenous testos-
terone. Participants included 114 malesbetween the ages of 18 and 44 recruitedfrom the community. Theywere
asked to indicate their preferences regarding spicy food and were then asked to season a sample of mashed
potatoes with pepper sauce and salt (control substance) prior to evaluating the spiciness of the meal. A positive
correlation was observed between endogenous salivary testosterone and the quantity of hot sauce individuals
voluntarily and spontaneously consumed with a meal served as part of a laboratory task. In contrast, signiﬁcant
correlations were not observed between testosterone and behavioral preference for salty foods. This study
suggests that behavioral preference for spicy food among men is related to endogenous testosterone levels.
© 2014 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce
[~ Paul Bloom, How pleasure works, p. 52.]
Many people throughout the world, particularly males [1,18], like
eating capsaicin-containing foods such as hot peppers, in spite of
capsaicin's ability to elicit discomfort, irritation, and even pain. Sociolo-
gists have pointed out that the ability of spicy food to produce these
aversive physiological reactions has engendered a link between these
foods and masculine personality traits in many cultural contexts
throughout the world . However, it remains unclear as to whether
the link between preferences for spicy foods and these traits is driven
more by physiology or by environment. After reviewing the literature
on the correlates of spicy-food preference, we introduce the present
study involving a test of the hypothesized relationship between spicy
Physiology& Behavior 139 (2015) 375–377
⁎Corresponding author. Tel.: +33 4 76 82 73 00; fax: +33 4 76 82 73 01.
E-mail address: Laurent.firstname.lastname@example.org (L. Bègue).
food preference and endogenous testosterone, a hormone that is gener-
ally related to stereotypical masculine preferences and behavior .
A wide range of factors, including genetic, physiological, psycholog-
ical and social forces,inﬂuence the liking and consumption of capsaicin-
containing food. From a genetic perspective, the preference for and con-
sumption of spicy food have been shown tobe inﬂuenced by both taste
phenotype  and oral anatomy . Moreover, a recent behavioral
genetics research study involving 331 adult Finnish twins found that
shared genetic inﬂuence accounted for 18–58% of the variation in pref-
erence for spicy foods .
Physiologically, foods such as those containing capsaicin have been
found to inﬂuence metabolism or homeostasis, sometimes resulting in
clinically important effects on animal gastrointestinal, cardiovascular
and respiratory systems [7,19]. Human studies have demonstrated
that red pepper consumption decreases appetite while itincreases sati-
ety , as well as energy expenditure , which is thought to be me-
diated by increased activity of sympathetic nervous system by capsaicin
Individual experience also inﬂuences the preference for spicy foods.
Rozin and Schiller provided the ﬁrst systematic study showing that
preference for the orally irritating qualities of capsaicin can be learned
through repeated exposure (;seealso). Another study conﬁrmed
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that the more one is exposed to spicy food, the more favorable the
evaluation —this latter study speciﬁcally demonstrated that attenuation
of sensory response to capsaicin exposure can occur within a few minutes
following a single application .Ithasalsobeenshownthatrepeated
tasting of spicy solutions over a 2-week period can lead to reduced ratings
of burn intensity and increased liking of the burning-sensation associated
with capsaicin .
Research studies show that gender and personality represent an im-
portant factor related to spicy food consumption [1,17].Preferencefor
spicy foods has been linked to higher levels of trait anger  and, as
mentioned above, in some cultural contexts, the consumption of chili
pepper is related to strength, daring and masculine personality traits
. As outlined by Byrnes and Hayes , among American college
students, eating hot peppers is sometimes a thrill-seeking activity that
involves a strong social component. There is a signiﬁcant and positive
correlation between high sensation seeking and preference for spicy
foods [4,14,23]. One study suggested that individuals with high levels
of extroversion prefer spicy foods when given the option to choose a
selection from a cookbook . Liking of spicy food is also related to
responsivity to rewards such as money, sex, and social status ,
which is consistent with historical reports indicating that eating spicy
foods served as a symbol of high social status . Finally, people
depicted as preferring spicy foods are sometimes perceived as being
more irritable than those with a stated preference for sour, sweet, or bit-
ter foods .
Dietary intake has been hypothesized as being associated with
hormonally related behaviors including those inﬂuenced by testos-
terone. This hormone has been consistently associated with many
of the factors related to capsaicin preference including social domi-
nance and aggression [5,18,31] and novelty and sensation seeking [9,
32,33], in addition to daring behavior . Conversely, low testosterone
levels have been associated with lethargic or depressive mood 
and other behaviors inconsistent with the behavioral correlates of
2. Current study
In light of the available literature, we hypothesized that salivary
testosterone would be positively associated with (a) self-reported pref-
erence for spicy food, (b) the quantity of hot sauce individuals would
voluntarily and spontaneously eat with a meal served in a laboratory
setting, and (c) the evaluation of the spiciness of their meal after they
had tasted it. Regarding this last hypothesis, we believed that the eval-
uation of the meal's spiciness would logically be linked to the quantity
of hot sauce participants chose to consume. Such effects would not be
expected in a protocol where participants were not given the choice
regarding the quantity of hot sauce administered. By contrast, we did
not expect any correlation between testosterone and a control sub-
stance (salt) for these three variables.
3.1. Participants and procedure
The participants were 114 males aged between 18 and 44 (M=
29.31, SD = 6.6) from the mid-size city of Grenoble (pop. 340,000)
and the surrounding communities. Participants had a diverse range
of occupational and educational levels. An advertisementwas published
in the main regional newspaper indicating that a food-tasting session
was being organized by a food research company looking for male par-
ticipantsbetween the ages of 18 and 45 years old. The participants were
told that they were being recruited for a sensory analysis of food that
was ostensibly going to be commercialized in the future and were
asked to abstain from food and drink (except water) for a period of
3 h prior to theirscheduled appointment. On the day ofthe session, par-
ticipants were greeted at a front desk by a 25-year-old host and were
tested between 9 AM and 6 PM. Prior to starting the tasting activity,
participants were asked to rate on a 4-point Likert type scale (1 =
not at all,4=yes, deﬁnitely)howmuchtheylikedspicyandsalty
As a part of another experiment, participants interacted with a con-
federate before the tasting session. A fewminutes later, each participant
was then presented with a plate of approximatively 150 g of mashed
potatoes and was given 50 doses (1.5 ml) of Tabasco® sauce in plastic
capsules and 80 sachets each containing 2 g of salt. Information regard-
ing the correspondence between amount of salt and of hot sauce doses
and their sensory effects was given across six levels labeled 1–6, e.g., 1
salt dose = salted, 6 salt doses and more = excessive burning sensation
and 1 Tabascodose = spicy, 6 Tabasco doses= risks of temporary extinc-
tion of the sense of taste, risks of vomiting. Although the descriptions
stopped at level 6, there was no limit in the quantity the participants
could choose. Finally, participants were asked to rate on a 5-point Likert
scale (1 = not at all,5=yes, deﬁnitely) if they considered the meal they
just ate to be spicy and/or salty. This ﬁnal question had several other
ﬁller items (e.g., ﬂoury, creamy, granular, and light).
3.2. Testosterone saliva measurement
Saliva samples were collected using standard methods. We collected
2.5 ml of saliva from each participant using a polypropylene microtu-
bule. Collected samples were frozen at −20 °C and stored until analysis.
Salivary levels of testosterone were assayed in duplicate by using a
radioimmunological method with a sensitivity of 15 pg, accuracy of
10.5%, and intra-assay reproducibility of 6.1% . All hormone samples
were tested in the same series to avoid any variations between tests.
Salivary measures quantify bioactive or free testosterone concentration
and research suggests that salivary testosterone levels in men are highly
correlated with both serum free and total testosterone levels in males
. In our sample, mean salivary testosterone concentration was
90.24 pg/ml (SD = 46.06), which is typical of the observations in
previous research. All values were log-transformed because the raw
hormone measures were positively skewed  (the results with or
without log transformation were equivalent). Preliminary analysis
showed that testosterone was not related with time of day (r=−.08,
Consistent with hypotheses, salivary testosterone was related to the
number of spicy doses participants spontaneously placed in their meals
(r= .294, p= .002) and their evaluation of the spiciness of the meal
after consumption (r=.28,p= .003). The correlation between a pref-
erence for spicy foods (measured before the food task) and testosterone
was marginally signiﬁcant (r= .15, p= .11). Age was unrelated to the
concentration of salivary testosterone (r=−.11, p=.21), but was
related to the number of spicy doses selected (r=.19,p=.03)and
marginally related to evaluation of the meal's spiciness after consump-
tion (r= .16, p= .08) as well as a general preference for spicy foods
(r= .18, p= .04). When we controlled forage by calculating partial cor-
relations, signiﬁcant associations remained between testosterone and
the number of spicy doses participants spontaneously placed in their
meals (r= .32, p= .001), evaluation of the meal's spiciness after con-
sumption (r=.30,p= .001), and preference for spicy foods (r= .19,
The correlation between testosterone and the control substance
(salt) was not statistically signiﬁcantfor any of the measures.Testoster-
one was not related to preference for salty foods (r= .06, p= .49), the
quantity of salt doses participants elected to place in their meals (r=
.01, p= .86), or their evaluation of the saltiness of their meals after
they seasoned them (r= .12, p= .21).
376 L. Bègue et al. / Physiology& Behavior 139 (2015) 375–377
This study demonstrated a positive correlationbetween endogenous
salivary testosterone and the quantity of hot sauce male participants
voluntarily and spontaneously consumed with a meal served in a labo-
ratory. Additionally, testosterone levels correlated with participants'
perceptions of the spiciness of their meal after a tasting task. There
was no correlation between testosterone and a preference for or the
use of a control substance (salt).
To our knowledge, this is the ﬁrst study in which a behavioral
preference for spicy food has been linked to endogenous testosterone
in a laboratory setting. The juxtaposition of using highly accurate labo-
ratory measurement with a diverse community sample of male partici-
pants ensures adequate levels of both internaland external validity. This
study provides new insights into the biology of food preference by
expanding our understanding of the link between hormonal processes
and food intake.
In spite of these strengths, there are many notable limitations. Fore-
most, the underlying cause of the use of spice by individuals with high
testosterone levels should be further analyzed, as it may be the product
of learned or innate preferences. Moreover, the correlational nature of
this research precludes causal inferences regarding the role of testoster-
one and behavioral preferences for spicy foods. For example, it may be
the case that consuming spicy foods produces elevated levels of testos-
terone. In a study published in 2013, Ilhan and Erdost showed that the
serum testosterone levels were increased during the pubertal and
adult periods of rats fed on a diet containing capsaicin. These authors
demonstrated that when a low dose of capsaicin was added to the diet
of rats during the developing period, serum testosterone levels and
spermatogenic cell activity increased, especially in the adult group.
While these results should be observed among humans to be general-
ized, they indicate that capsaicin can affect the release of testosterone
directly or indirectly. Future administration studies will be necessary
to evaluate the causal relationship between elevated testosterone and
preference for spicy foods. Finally, we cannot exclude that the color of
the spicy doses we used in this study may have contributed to the
participant's choice. As a recent study showed, individuals who chose
red in a lab-based experimentas a symbol color to represent themselves
had higher testosterone levels and rated their color as having higher
levels of certain characteristics, such as dominance and aggression,
than did those participants who chose blue . The method that was
used in the present study toevaluate preference for spicy food in a sin-
gle presentation could also be completed by multiple presentations or
other methodologies (see [12,20]). In conclusion, this study showed
that food preference was linked to physiological factors and indicated
that salivary testosterone represents an individual difference variable re-
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