The feeling is all too familiar: Bite into a seemingly innocent piece of chicken curry, and shortly after the first taste of meaty goodness, your tongue starts to tingle, cheeks redden, and beads of sweat form on your forehead. Then steam spews from your ears, blasting the five-alarm fire in your head.
Okay, so maybe that last part only happens in cartoons, but the burning pain is totally legit.
What Brings on the Burn?
Most spicy food gets its kick from capsaicinoids, a family of molecules found in nearly all chili peppers, says Chris Gulgas, a chemistry professor who researches spicy foods at the University of Cincinnati. Other spicy foods (wasabi, ginger, and even black pepper) are molecularly different from capsaicin—the most common capsaicinoid—and result in a burning sensation that rarely lingers more than a few seconds.
The chili burn stems from a chemical reaction that occurs when capsaicin bonds with the pain receptors on the inside of the mouth, which are the same neurons that detect heat.
“These nerve cells naturally fire a signal when the local temperature gets above 108 degrees F, just warmer than hot-tub temperature,” Gulgas says. “The fact that capsaicin tricks the neurons into the same reaction is an accident or coincidence.”
What Cools the Burn?
Here’s the key: Capsaicin dissolves in fat, oil, and alcohol but not in water. Chugging water after biting down on a chili pepper will only spread the capsaicin around the inside of your mouth, where it will come in contact with more pain receptors and amp up the burning sensation. Steer clear of beer and soda too—both beverages are mostly water.
The nerves that react to capsaicin are already primed to flare up at hot temperatures. That’s why taking a sip of coffee after eating a breakfast of eggs with Sriracha will make the kick more intense, Gulgas says. So it’s wise to reach for something cold—so long as it’s not water. Here's the breakdown of which liquids soothe the burn:
1. Dairy: The fat and oil in dairy products will dissolve the capsaicin and eliminate the burn. Opt for whole milk or full-fat sour cream or yogurt to do the trick. “It works just like soap dissolving grease particles when cleaning dishes,” Gulgas says. “Milk will dissolve and remove capsaicin from the reactive area.”
2. Alcohol: Capsaicin also dissolves in alcohol, but only if the beverage has a relatively high proof. Swigs of alcohol can also have the added benefit of blacking out all memory of the burn.
Amiel Stanek, assistant to the editor-in-chief at Bon Appetit, tested a number of ways to squash the burn of spicy chili peppers for a blog post on the magazine’s website and was surprised by how well a few sips of vodka worked. “I’m sure some of the success is because it made me feel a lot more mellow about having a burning mouth,” Stanek says.
4. Starches: Rice and bread won’t dissolve capsaicin like fats, oils, and alcohol, but they will act like a crude mop to soak up the molecules and stop the scorching feeling, Gulgas says.
Stanek, the chili heat connoisseur at Bon Appetit, says that sticky white rice was his preferred method to extinguish the burn. “It felt like I was scrubbing my tongue with the rice grains,” he says. “It makes sense that people eat spicy food from around the world on a bed of white rice.”
5. Sugars: A spoonful of sugar doesn’t just help the medicine go down; it can also be a remedy for a mouth on fire. The Scoville scale, which gives a numeric measurement to the spiciness of chili peppers and other foods, was originally based on the amount of sugar water needed to dilute a chili pepper. Mix a tablespoon of sugar into an 8-ounce glass of water or squirt enough honey to coat your tongue to tame the chili heat. Temporal effectiveness of mouth-rinsing on capsaicin mouth-burn. Nasrawi CW, Pangborn RM. Physiology and Behavior. 1990 Apr;47(4):617-23.
Does Flipping Off the Burn Kill Capsaicin's Health Benefits?
Studies have found that regular consumption of capsaicin, especially among those who aren’t accustomed to eating spicy foods, can increase energy and metabolic levels Effects of novel capsinoid treatment on fatness and energy metabolism in humans: possible pharmacogenetic implications. Snitker S, Fujishima Y, Shen H, et al. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2009 Jan;89(1):45-50 Effects of capsaicin, green tea and CH-19 sweet pepper on appetite and energy intake in humans in negative and positive energy balance. Reinbach HC, Smeets A, Martinussen T. Clinical Nutrition. 2009 Jun;28(3):260-5.. Stanek, who ate chili peppers for a week as part of the Bon Appetit experiment, noticed he started craving the burn and its subsequent boost in energy. “It was super unpleasant the first few days, but then my normal afternoon energy slump was replaced with a buzzing excitement,” he says.
Thankfully using these tricks to cool down the heat shouldn’t effect capsaicin’s power to stoke metabolic rates.
“Most capsaicin is broken down by liver enzymes,” says Andy Brunning, founder of the chemistry website, Compound Interest. “Actively trying to remedy spiciness with things like milk shouldn’t affect any metabolism-altering properties.”
But the metabolic gains may be overstated anyway. Studies found the chemical boost wasn’t large enough to promote long-term weight loss. (No big surprise there.)