We’ve all felt it: Bite into a seemingly innocent piece of chicken curry, and shortly after the first taste of meaty goodness, your tongue starts to tingle, your cheeks redden, and beads of sweat form on your forehead. Then steam spews from your ears, blasting the five-alarm fire in your head.
OK, so maybe that last part only happens in cartoons, but the burning pain is totally legit.
Chili peppers gets their kick from capsaicin. Other spicy foods, like wasabi, ginger, and even black pepper, get their spiciness from different compounds, says Chris Gulgas, a chemistry professor who researches spicy foods at the University of Cincinnati.
Unlike capsaicin, they produce a burning feeling that rarely lingers for more than a few seconds.
The chili burn stems from a chemical reaction that happens when capsaicin bonds with the pain receptors in your mouth, which are located at nerve endings that also 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.”
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 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 set 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 — as long as it’s not water.
Here’s the breakdown of which liquids soothe the burn:
The fat and oil in dairy products will dissolve the capsaicin and get rid of 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.”
Capsaicin also dissolves in alcohol, but only if the beverage has a relatively high proof.
Amiel Stanek tested several ways to squash the burn of spicy chili peppers for a “Bon Appetit” blog post.
He was surprised at 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.
Rice and bread won’t dissolve capsaicin like fats, oils, and alcohol will, but they will act like a mop to soak up the molecules and stop the scorching feeling, Gulgas says.
Stanek says sticky white rice was his preferred way 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.”
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 measures the spiciness of chili peppers and other foods, was created based on the amount of sugar water needed to dilute the spiciness of a chili pepper to an undetectable level.
Mix 1 tablespoon of sugar into an 8-ounce glass of water or squirt enough honey to coat your tongue to tame the chili heat.
Studies have found that eating capsaicin may increase energy expenditure,
Stanek noticed that he began craving the burn and its subsequent boost of 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 affect 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.”
Your love of spicy food may have other health benefits too. Research has shown that capsaicin can help destroy certain cancer cells,
Next time a dish sets your mouth on fire, reach for a glass of milk to best quench the burn. If you don’t have milk on hand, a sugary drink, olive oil, or rice can also do the trick.
Research suggests that chili peppers are good for more than just spicing up a bland dish. With potential benefits like helping with weight loss and killing cancer cells, spicy food just gets better and better. But make sure you have something besides water to go with it.