Did you accidentally eat a chili pepper that's too spicy for you? Let science guide you to the right choice to cool the pain. Hi, I'm Julie. Welcome to Hungry for Science. This is my hot sauce collection, and as you can see, I really love hot sauce. Now, my tolerance for spicy foods is pretty high, but sometimes I run into trouble if someone comes over for dinner and I make something that's too spicy for them. What do you do when you eat something that's too spicy? Well, your first inclination might be to reach for a glass of water, to try to wash everything away, but maybe you found something else works better, like milk or maybe alcohol if you're allowed to drink it. The way that I wanna figure out how to wash some spiciness out of my mouth is to think about the science of what you're experiencing. Now, the main molecule that's responsible for the spiciness in chili peppers is called capsaicin. And capsaicin lives in the membranes and the seeds of the chili peppers. So the first tip is, if you don't want things too spicy, leave those parts out. And if you want a little heat, leave them in. When capsaicin binds to a receptor on your tongue, it actually triggers a neurological response. And the receptor and the response is the exact same one as when you're exposed to something at a high temperature. That's why it feels like our mouth is burning, even though you're not actually being exposed to something at a high temperature. Your brain perceives it exactly the same, and it actually triggers a physiological response to start to cool yourself down. You might find yourself sweating, even though you've just eaten something spicy and you're not exposed to a high temperature. So when we think about like how to tone down the spiciness, what we really wanna think about is the chemistry of the capsaicin and if there are ways to either block or rinse away the capsaicin. When I look at these chili sauces, most of them are oil-based and the ones that aren't are based in vinegar. And so I've set up an experiment to see if we can see why that's a nice choice for hot sauce. I've cut up some habanero peppers here and I've put little pieces of each pepper into five different liquids to see if I can see how much capsaicin gets dissolved or becomes soluble in each of those liquids. I have water, vegetable oil, vodka, which is 40% alcohol, vinegar, and milk. These have been soaking for about an hour and I'm gonna taste them to see how spicy they taste to me. So first, the water. It's pretty watery. There's a little bit of spice, especially at the end as the water gets rinsed away from my mouth. Now the oil. There's a lot more spice in the oil and I have to say, I did warm all the liquids a little bit before I soaked them because that tends to increase the solubility. And in fact, the solubility of capsaicin is much higher in oil than water. It's really insoluble. It does not dissolve a lot in water, and it does dissolve a lot in oil. So that's why a lot of your chili oils and hot sauces are oil-based because they can absorb the capsaicin and also act as a preservative. Let's see what the vodka tastes like. Oh my goodness, that one definitely has some spice. And vodka or alcohol, 40% alcohol, is definitely a great way to dissolve capsaicin. It's like, it's halfway in between oil and water in terms of how soluble it is, but I can definitely taste the spice in that one. How 'bout the vinegar? Ooh, vinegar's pretty spicy too. Vinegar's mostly water and a little acetic acid, but it's way spicier than the chili peppers that were soaking in the water. And I think that has to do with the acid that's in the vinegar. So while not a lotta capsaicin is dissolving into the water part of the vinegar, the acid part lowers the pH, which actually intensifies that receptor interaction that causes you to perceive spiciness. So vinegar's a really nice choice for hot sauces as well. One, again, because it's a nice preservative, but two, it really accentuates, it amps up the spiciness and honestly, if you're eating hot sauce, you might like the spiciness. So let's check out the milk. No spiciness at all. I mean, that might seem surprising because I actually know that milk is really good at toning down the heat when I eat something spicy. But when I think about what's happened, so the oil and the alcohol were spicy because I know the capsaicin dissolves into it, so it can wash it away from my mouth. But the milk doesn't taste spicy and yet, I know from experience, it helps take away the spice. So let's think about why. Milk is mostly water and we've seen that the capsaicin will not dissolve in water. There's also some fat in milk, so that should dissolve some capsaicin. In addition to water and fat, milk also has proteins. And one of those proteins is called casein. And casein actually binds capsaicin directly. And so it blocks it from reaching your receptors. So in this milk, there's actually casein that's bound any available capsaicin that's come off of the chili peppers. So when you eat something that's too spicy, you just keep capsaicin's solubility in mind. Whether you reach for a milkshake or a shot of tequila, make sure you think about chemistry to wash that capsaicin away.
Beating the Heat
Published: August 31, 2021
Total Running Time: 00:06:07
So you’ve eaten something spicy and your mouth is on fire. Now what? Science can help—find out what to eat (or drink) to tame the heat, and why some substances offer better relief than others.