We Tried All the Conventional Wisdom Ways to Cool a Spice-Burning Mouth and This Is the Best
Put down that glass of water.
Reaching for a glass of cool water to drench your burning tongue after eating spicy food might be the worst thing you can do. To alleviate that face-reddening, mouth-on-fire feeling, we learned the best antidotes from food scientists and then tested them out ourselves.
What Is That Spicy Spice?
It’s a myth that the heat of a hot chili pepper comes from the seeds or even the chili itself. In reality, the burn comes from the spongy, light-colored plant tissue that anchors the seeds inside a hot pepper. However, this pale tissue, often called the ribs, is easy to rupture if the chili is at all crushed. And when it is, that potent plant chemical spreads to the seeds and the inner walls of the chili fruit.
This chemical is capsaicin, the hot, spicy substance produced by the capsicum plant, the fruit of which is the pepper. This potent antioxidant keeps most pests away from the plant — but not humans! Lots of us love hot peppers.
This antioxidant appears to have several helpful effects on our bodies, both in topical applications and consuming it. Rubbing on a medicinal cream containing capsaicin can decrease chronic pain, including arthritis, perhaps partially by raising the temperature of any body part it touches. (Think about how your skin feels after you've been slicing hot peppers!) And high-dose capsaicin supplements may decrease muscle inflammation after a hard workout.
Positive effects have also been found from eating a diet laced with chili peppers. There are links to better brain health in populations that consume more capsaicin.
Hot peppers may help maintain a healthy weight. Capsaicin can signal the brain to release hormones that make us feel fuller and satiated. It may also temporarily increase metabolism to help burn more fat and conserve fewer calories.
How Does the Spice Burn Your Mouth?
When capsaicin is eaten, the molecules bind to receptors on the tongue that detect temperature changes and pain, explains food scientist Webb Girard, senior director of product development at Culinex, a food science company. Since capsaicin is oily itself and fat-soluble, if the spicy stuff is carried onto the tongue by oil or fat in food, that oil tends to stay on the tongue longer than if it were a water-soluble (which it’s not) chemical that could just wash right down the esophagus.
What’s the Best Way to Cool the Burn?
We ate chili crisp and then tried out the following potential antidotes to cool the mouth-burn. We ranked each 1 to 5, with 5 being the best burn neutralizer.
Alcohol: A cold beer seems like the perfect pairing with spicy food. And it’s true that capsaicin is more soluble in alcohol than water, writes food science authority Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. So, that beer may “clean up” some of the burning molecules on the tongue. But beer is also mainly water, so most molecules feel like they’re just swished around to other parts of the mouth for more burn. Neutralizing score: 2
Dairy: Again, water is a factor. While the fat-soluble capsaicin may be mopped up by the milk fats and neutralized, the water in milk doesn’t help. But casein protein in dairy can actually help break down capsaicin molecules, according to Girard. Dairy foods that are higher in fat and lower in water, like sour cream, and, even better, higher in casein protein, like full-fat yogurt, are very helpful in cooling the mouth. Neutralizing score: 4
Sparkling water with ice: The bubbles unfortunately add additional irritation to those tongue pain receptors. But the super icy temperature of the water does dull the pain while the bubbly water is in the mouth. McGee writes that very cold foods or beverages can lower the temp of the receptors below where they are activated. But we found that once the tongue warms up again, the burn is back. Neutralizing score: 1
Bread: Crusty bread works better than soft, smooth bread. All those nooks and crannies and rough edges help distract nerves on the tongue with a new type of signal, writes McGee. We found super crunchy corn chips are distractingly helpful, temporarily. Neutralizing score: 3
Peanut butter: Surprise! A spoonful of peanut butter works really well — especially if it’s crunchy peanut butter. Again, those crunchy nuts add distraction to mouth nerves. And the oils in the nut butter help intercept and sop up the capsaicin molecules, then move them away from taste receptors, explains Girard. Plus, lots of us already have peanut butter in our pantries — helpful, if you get stunned by too much spice in your takeout, or drizzle on a bit too much chili crisp. Neutralizing score: 5
When Will the Burn Go Away?
While it may feel like your taste buds may be singed forever, the pain is temporary. The burn from capsaicin generally dissipates in about 15 minutes, according to McGee.
Serena Ball, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian nutritionist, food writer and recipe developer. She blogs at TeaspoonOfSpice.com and is the author of the best-selling The 30-Minute Mediterranean Diet Cookbook. Follow her @TspCurry on Twitter and Instagram.
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.