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A display of hot peppers and the Scoville scale at a supermarket in Houston, Texas

Pungency is the condition of having a strong, sharp smell or flavor that is often so strong that it is unpleasant; for example, the pungent smell of a dirty animal.[1][2] Pungency is the technical term used by scientists to refer to the characteristic of food commonly referred to as spiciness or hotness and sometimes heat,[3][4][5] which is found in foods such as chili peppers.

The term piquancy (/ˈpkənsi/) is sometimes applied to foods with a lower degree of pungency[2] that are "agreeably stimulating to the palate." Examples of piquant food include mustard and curry.


The terms "pungent" (/ˈpʌnənt/ (About this soundlisten)) and "pungency" are rarely used in colloquial speech but are preferred by scientists as they eliminate the potential ambiguity arising from use of the words "hot" and "spicy", which can also refer to temperature and the presence of spices, respectively.[3][4][6]

For instance, a pumpkin pie can be both hot (out of the oven) and spicy (due to the common inclusion of spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, mace, and cloves), but it is not pungent. (A food critic may nevertheless use the word "piquant" to describe such a pie, especially if it is exceptionally well-seasoned.) Conversely, pure capsaicin is pungent, yet it is not naturally accompanied by a hot temperature or spices.

As the Oxford, Collins, and Merriam-Webster dictionaries explain, the term "piquancy" refers to mild pungency[2] and flavors and spices that are much less strong than chilli peppers, including, for example, the strong flavor of some tomatoes. In other words, pungency always refers to a very strong taste whereas piquancy refers to any spices and foods that are "agreeably stimulating to the palate", in other words to food that is spicy in the general sense of "well-spiced".


In foods[edit]

Pungency is often quantified in scales that range from mild to hot. The Scoville scale measures the pungency of chili peppers, as defined by the amount of capsaicin they contain.

A display of spices in Guadeloupe: some pungent, some not

Pungency is not considered a taste in the technical sense because it is carried to the brain by a different set of nerves. While taste nerves are activated when consuming foods like chili peppers, the sensation commonly interpreted as "hot" results from the stimulation of somatosensory fibers in the mouth. Many parts of the body with exposed membranes that lack taste receptors (such as the nasal cavity, genitals, or a wound) produce a similar sensation of heat when exposed to pungent agents.

The pungent sensation provided by chili peppers, black pepper and other spices like ginger and horseradish plays an important role in a diverse range of cuisines across the world, such as Korean, Persian, Turkish, Tunisian, Ethiopian, Hungarian, Indian, Burmese, Indonesian, Laotian, Singaporean, Malaysian, Bangladeshi, Mexican, Peruvian, Caribbean, Pakistani, Somali cuisine, Southwest Chinese (including Sichuan cuisine), Sri Lankan, Vietnamese, and Thai cuisines.[citation needed]


The scientific term for the effect of pungency is chemesthesis. Substances such as piperine and capsaicin cause a burning sensation by inducing a trigeminal nerve reaction together with normal taste reception. The pungent feeling caused by allyl isothiocyanate, capsaicin, piperine, and allicin is caused by activation of the heat thermo- and chemosensitive TRP ion channels including TRPV1 and TRPA1 nociceptors. The pungency of chilies may be an adaptive response to selection by microbial pathogens.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Pungency". Collins English Dictionary. February 3, 2014. Retrieved February 7, 2014.
  2. ^ a b c "Merriam-Webster Dictionary: "Pungent"". Merriam-webster.com. Retrieved February 7, 2014.
  3. ^ a b c Tewksbury, J. J.; Reagan, K. M.; Machnicki, N. J.; Carlo, T. A.; Haak, D. C.; Penaloza, A. L. C.; Levey, D. J. (2008). "Evolutionary ecology of pungency in wild chilies". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 105 (33): 11808–11811. doi:10.1073/pnas.0802691105. PMC 2575311. PMID 18695236.
  4. ^ a b "Chile Terminology" (PDF). Chile Pepper Institute, New Mexico State University. 2006. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 16, 2012. Retrieved September 14, 2012.
  5. ^ "Chile Heat" (PDF). Chile Pepper Institute, New Mexico State University. 2006. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 16, 2012. Retrieved September 14, 2012.
  6. ^ Haak, D. C.; McGinnis, L. A.; Levey, D. J.; Tewksbury, J. J. (2011). "Why are not all chilies hot? A trade-off limits pungency". Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 279 (1735): 2012–2017. doi:10.1098/rspb.2011.2091. PMC 3311884. PMID 22189403. Retrieved September 16, 2012.

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