A bushel of chillis

Chemesthesis: A Chemical Touch

In Eat well, Nutrition education by Rebecca Comments

I’m currently studying food science as part of my Nutrition and Dietetics degree. Food science explores the physical, chemical and biological principles of food and food preparation.

One of the many interesting things I’ve learned about is the concept of chemesthesis.

Chemesthesis: physical sensations caused by the chemical compounds in foods, aka the ability to feel a food’s chemical properties.

It may be better described through well-known food examples:

  • the hot, burning sensation of capsaicinoids in chillies
  • the cooling of menthol in peppermint
  • the tingle of carbonation in fizzy drinks
  • the warmth of raw ginger

Chemesthetic sensations occur because the chemical compounds in certain foods can activate the receptors of sensory nerves that mediate pain, touch and thermal perception. Your brain receives messages from these receptors and interprets the food as having qualities that are not actually a part of the food (peppermint isn’t actually cold, but we perceive a cooling sensation).

Chemesthetic sensations doesn’t only occur in your mouth – anyone who has chopped a chilli and touched their eye will know this all too well. The sensations can be felt via all types of skin, while areas of the body with a mucus membrane are particularly sensitive (such as the eyes, nose, and throat). That’s why eating wasabi burns inside your nostrils and can make you teary.

Chemesthesis contributes a great deal to the appeal and experience of foods, and although we often consider it as an aspect of flavour, it really is a unique sensation that can transform a dish into a multisensory experience.


Photo Credit: Chillies by Heijo Reinl