If you’re a fan of spicy foods and can’t resist a spicy meal, you’re probably no stranger to the burn that follows. Your mouth is on fire, you can’t taste anything, your nose is running – and then your friend offers you a glass of water. You may have heard others recommend drinking milk or eating sugar instead to reduce pain — but do these seemingly unrelated methods really work? And if so, why?
The biochemistry of “tasting” hot foods
The active ingredient in most spicy foods is called capsaicin. It is directly responsible for the burning sensation on the tongue after spicy food like chilies or hot sauce. Capsaicin binds to a type of receptor on your tongue called transient receptor potential vanilloid type 1 (TRPV1). When capsaicin binds to TRPV1, calcium ions rush into the cells on your tongue and signals are sent through your neurons classifying the sensation as “sharp.” It is the capsaicin-induced activation of this TRPV1 receptor that triggers the feeling of heartburn. There is no physical heat involved, however, as that heat is a chemical flavor illusion.
How to Ward Off Capsaicin: Most to Least Effective Methods
Imagine this: you have spicy food and you drink water, but the water does nothing. A molecule that separates capsaicin from TRPV1 would ease the burning sensation, but capsaicin is a hydrophobic and fat-soluble molecule, meaning it repels water and dissolves in fats. Therefore, water is only minimally effective in relieving the burn.
There are two main theories as to why popular remedies like milk work to ward off spices. First, milk contains hydrophobic protein molecules called casein. As we all learned in chemistry class, like dissolves like, so when hydrophobic casein is available, capsaicin detaches from the TRPV1 receptor and binds to casein instead. This means fewer TRPV1 receptors on your tongue are attacked by capsaicin and the burning sensation is reduced. The second theory is that since capsaicin is fat-soluble, it is dissolved by the fat content of milk, which limits capsaicin’s binding to TRPV1.
In general, the most effective way to ward off capsaicin is to consume casein-containing milk with the highest fat content you can find.
If you’re serious about your lactose intolerance, there are other options for you! Capsaicin is basic, which makes it basic. This means it can be neutralized by acids, so lemon juice, vinegar, or any other acidic food or additive will work as well. However, this method is less effective than milk because milk removes capsaicin from its receptor by providing a more enticing alternative, while acids work to neutralize capsaicin itself without dislodging it from the TRPV1 receptor.
As for the suggestion of eating bread to combat the pungency, it’s important to note that from a chemical standpoint, carbs aren’t helpful. Rather, bread is recommended because it acts as a barrier between the capsaicin molecules and the TRPV1 receptors on your tongue.
However, my recommendation is to avoid spicy food altogether. Is it really worth the pain?