Science Saturday: Some Like It Hot – A Look At The Science Behind Spicy Food
Whether your latest pepper was a jalapeño to clear the sinuses or a habanero to blow the roof, everyone who eats peppers knows the burning sensation that accompanies these natural packets of edible fire.
Of course, eating peppers doesn’t really set the mouth on fire, but the description is actually more accurate than most people realize.
When that juicy red bad-boy bursts in your mouth, it releases a compound called capsaicin. Rather than interacting with taste buds, capsaicin actually locks into your body’s nociceptors—sensors in the nervous system that alert the brain of pain.
The particular nociceptor that collects capsaicin molecules, TRPV1, also alerts the body if it sustains heat damage. Since the receptor responds to both types of stimuli, your brain is tricked into believing that there’s something ‘hot’ in your mouth. Considering the TRPV1 receptors only react to heat sources 109 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter, you can only imagine the sensory meltdown after deciding to swallow a Carolina Reaper. Feel like experiencing the opposite effect? Eat foods with menthol, which has similar effects as eating something cold.
Just how ‘hot’ a pepper is depends on its concentration of capsaicin. The popular Scoville Scale bases its measurements off of how much a hot item needs to be diluted before the food has no effect on humans. The pepper currently listed as the world’s hottest, Dragon’s Breath, clocks in at 2,480,000 Scoville units. That’s 310 times hotter than the hottest jalapeño.
It’s fun to push the limits and test different peppers out, but, for that day that your mouth finally meets its match, here are some tips to put out the fire.
- Drink milk: Those old cartoons may have shown characters rushing to the nearest water source, but water actually just spreads it around. This is because capsaicin is an oil, and water doesn’t mix with oil. Milk, on the other hand, has lots of fatty components that do just fine with oil. The oil surrounds the capsaicin and dilutes it. Milk also has casein, which bonds with the capsaicin and carries it away from the nociceptors.
- If there is no milk, drink some liquor: Alcohol helps wash away capsaicin like milk does, but without the same degree of effectiveness.
- Eat bread: The bread helps soak up the oily capsaicin.
And, if you don’t want to eliminate the pain and enjoy bizarre experiences, try popping a mint.