So you got a little too confident and used extra-hot buffalo sauce on your wings, too many jalapenos on your nachos, or too much cayenne pepper while cooking dinner. Or maybe you had no idea those peanuts were going to be spicy. When it comes to spicy foods, we’ve all probably bit off more than we could chew at least once or twice, whether on purpose or not.
So, what can you do to help cool down your mouth after eating spicy food? Or did that first bite seal your fate?
Understanding the science behind the burn, it turns out, can help you understand what to reach for (and what to avoid) when that fire in your mouth strikes.
What Keeps your Mouth Cool After Eating Spicy Food?
So, you ate the hot wings, and now here you are: I’m frantically searching the internet for some spicy food hack — anything to put the fire in my mouth and keep me from sweating bullets. (Related: Why Do We Sweat When It’s Hot and When It’s Not)
Armed with your new knowledge about the science of capsaicin, here are the do’s and doof it’s cooling your mouth down after eating spicy food:
1. Milk-Based Products
DO CHOOSE SOME DAIRY. Many milk-based products contain casein, a protein that can aid in the breakdown of capsaicin. Consider casein a detergent, attracting, surrounding, and helping wash away the oil-based capsaicin molecules floating around your mouth as soap does. The catch is that the dairy product you choose must contain casein to cool your mouth. Casein-containing milk products include cow’s milk (not almond, coconut, or soy), yogurt, cottage cheese, and sour cream.
2. Acidic Food/Drink
DO consume something acidic. For those who need or want to avoid dairy, don’t fret! You also have the option of using acid. Remember how we mentioned capsaicin being an alkaline molecule? We can neutralize its activity by balancing it with an acid. This means that drinking or eating something acidic, such as lemonade, limeade, orange juice, or a tomato-based food or drink, may help cool your mouth. (Milk, by the way, is also acidic.)
Those who dislike dairy products can substitute carbonated drinks or acidic foods. Foods that are acidic, such as tomatoes (tomatoes for skin), pineapple, or even lime, may be very effective against the burning sensation caused by hot and spicy food. You can serve these foods alongside your spicy main course, such as a salad.
Now let’s see how it goes. Remember the molecule derived from capsaicin oil that causes the burning sensation? Because capsaicin is alkaline, the acid interacts with the molecule when you consume something acidic. Because capsaicin is alkaline, a neutralizing reaction occurs between the acid and the alkaline-based molecule, thus nullifying the effect of capsaicin. So the next time you eat something spicy, remember to drink something sour or have a glass of coke.
3. Junior Mints
With its cooling mint and smooth chocolate, the Junior Mint was poised for on-the-go, spice-countering greatness. However, the ingredients in this candy proved to be its undoing. Though the mint did, as expected, cool the burning sensation, the sugary goop also bonded with the remaining hot sauce on my tongue to form a spicy mixture that clung to the back of my throat like mucus enslaving me to low-grade pain for the next 45 seconds. Thank you very much, soy lecithin.
4. Pure Granulated Sugar
Sugar in its raw form is quite effective at relieving pain. After all, it’s not called a “sugar high” for nothing. But, given the number of calories I consumed, I have to rank this low on the effectiveness scale.
For a good reason, your mother prescribed this viscous nectar for all your throat ailments. Its mild, floral sweetness does a good job putting out the fire, but the stickiness doesn’t help clear the burn completely.
5. Creamy Peanut Butter
This is only a semi-effective remedy because of peanut butter’s fat content, and just a spoonful numbed and dulled some of the pain. Unfortunately, the spread is also low in moisture and high in clinginess, creating a complex situation that we must address.
6. Coconut Water
It works similarly to a thinner, sweetened milk version but is more hangover-friendly! This option is manna if you want to replenish your electrolyte supply while having your morning-after breakfast. Sammy dunked in Tabasco sauce without experiencing heartburn.
7. Ice Cream with Vanilla Flavor
That’s it. Ice cream, not milk, is the ultimate coolant. A single spoonful of ice cream, cold and equal parts milk and sugar (the two most effective flavors so far), immediately stifled all traces of burning sauce-caused pain, then sent me back into the recesses of my food memory and replaced all the heartbreaking choices that ever led me to question my sense of self-worth and self-respect with new optimism and a renewed faith that, yes, you will finish that bowl of pad kee mao, thanks.
8. Whole Milk
It is a tried, tested, and studied fact that capsaicin — the active, pain-causing ingredient in hot peppers — dissolves better in oil than in water, and milk has plenty of fat. Most pepper-eating contests provide participants with a glass of milk to help them cope with the pain, and a glass of cool milk provides instant relief as it washes the fire out. Milk was poised to be the undisputed champion in my search for the ultimate heat killer, lighter than peanut butter, milkier than coconut milk, and lacking the gumminess of candy or honey.
DO cut back on carbs. Starches are filling for various reasons, one of which is that they typically have a high physical volume. Starchy food’s volume can also be beneficial when eating spicy foods because it can act as a physical barrier between the capsaicin and your mouth. Try eating a piece of bread, rice, or a tortilla to put some starch between this sneaky molecule and your pain receptors.
DO NOT BELIEVE that a glass of water will save you. If you take nothing else away, leave with this: Because capsaicin is oil-based, drinking water will spread this molecule around your mouth, setting off even more pain receptors. Oops! Instead of a glass of water, try one of the above alternatives to help cool your mouth.
Additional Capsaicin-Neutralizing Foods
In addition to dairy and starchy products, you can also try sugar, citrus, or more oil. As with the plate of rice, we can examine the science of cooking and how the heat of a chili is often mitigated with a dash of sugar, a squeeze of lemon (or lime), or a dollop of peanut butter. The same is true for a burning mouth.
Sugar: A teaspoon of sugar will suffice. Take a small spoonful of sugar and let the granules dissolve in your mouth for a few seconds. This will help to reduce the capsaicin’s reach.
Lemon or lime: A slice of either citrus fruit, like dairy, will help neutralize capsaicin by binding with it.
Peanut butter: Because capsaicin has oil-like properties, it will bind with other oil-based items like olive oil or peanut butter. You can also combine two remedies and eat buttered bread (dairy/oil + starch).
As you can see, there are several options for balancing the spice or heat of chili and spicy foods. When your mouth is on fire, you’ll want a quick fix, so a baked potato might not be your first choice. But keep in mind, neither should that icy water!
How can Spicy Foods be Made Less Spicy Before Eating them?
It should go without saying that if you want your food to be mild, keep the chiles to a minimum. But we’ve all made mistakes, such as misjudging a recipe or forgetting that the smaller, younger chile peppers are spicier than the larger, older ones.
There are many widely accepted but scientifically unproven techniques for toning down a spicy dish, such as adding honey, just as there are for stopping the burning in your mouth after eating spicy. However, diluting it is the only guaranteed method, which means you may need to double (or more) every ingredient in your recipe except the chiles.
Another option is to keep something on hand to coat your mouth, preventing capsaicin from reaching your nerve endings. Heavy sour cream will absorb that stuff and coat your tongue, making it difficult.
But if you’re dead set on never, ever doing anything remotely resembling that time you ate a Naga Viper on a dare and may or may not have blown actual steam out of your ears, there’s only one rule that will keep you safe: there’s nothing wrong with ordering the grilled cheese.
What does Spicy Food do to your Body?
You already know it is not when your mouth appears on fire; it just feels that way. But why?
While the two may appear unrelated, the burning sensation you get when eating something spicy is similar to the burning pain you get when you accidentally touch a hot pan. Temperature-sensitive pain receptors are activated in response to each, screaming to your brain, “This is HOT!”
When your skin or mouth is in danger, your brain sends pain signals to try to get you to stop doing whatever you’re doing.
In the case of the hot pan, this pain serves an important function: it prompts you to remove your hand before it burns.
In the case of hot pepper that isn’t hot, the reason is less obvious.
Hot peppers contain capsaicin, an alkaline, oil-based molecule that secretly activates temperature-sensitive pain receptors in your mouth even though the molecule itself does not produce heat or cause any real harm (unless you overdo it).
When capsaicin activates these pain receptors, your brain is tricked into thinking your mouth is in danger, which results in the burning pain that encourages you to stop eating whatever spicy thing you’re eating.
However, the pain receptors in your mouth can adapt to capsaicin’s deception. These temperature-sensitive receptors are more likely to become desensitized to capsaicin if they are overstimulated by eating spicy food regularly. This is why people who eat spicy food regularly can tolerate it better than others — the “burning pain” is dulled for them.
For those who don’t eat spicy food frequently, the burning sensation is either too much, and you stop eating it entirely, or you try to dull the burn by reaching for something that you think will help cool your mouth down.
What Destroys the Spicy Flavor?
Acidic ingredients like lemon or lime juice, vinegar, wine, tomatoes, and even pineapple will help neutralize spicy oil’s pH levels, reducing some of the flaming-hot flavors. Add the juice of half a lemon or lime to your over-spiced dish or a tablespoon or two of wine, vinegar, or tomato sauce.
Consuming spicy food is an unpleasant experience, but in a kitchen without Tabasco? That, in our opinion, would be a special kind of hell. We sipped some of the most commonly recommended remedies for a burning-hot tongue to help eaters everywhere cope with this oxymoronic addiction. I hope this was helpful!