Spicy food can be delicious, but also quite hot. What do you do when you feel that your mouth is on fire and the steam is coming out of your ears? Prof. Dr. Margriet Westerterp tells how you can put out your mouth.
"The substance capsaicin and a number of related substances - capsaicinoids - is what makes a chili pepper hot," says Westerterp, professor of human food intake regulation at Maastricht University. "The amount of capsaicinoids in a chili pepper determines the sharpness and spiciness of the chili pepper."
The capsaicin causes a reaction with the pain receptors in the mouth and throat, which are responsible for feeling warmth. A signal then goes to the brain that increases the heart rate, makes you warm and sweats.
A very natural response to this: drink water as quickly as possible. "That just doesn't help," says Westerterp. "The capsaicin is in the oil in the dish and, as is well known, oil and water do not mix."
By drinking water the capsaicin will spread more through the mouth and throat, making you even worse. Drinking soft drinks and beer, which mainly consist of water, does not help either.
Scientific research into 'best extinguisher'
What should you do then? "For counteracting the burning sensation, milk - or other dairy products - is the preferred drink," says Westerterp. "This has traditionally been known from experience. The effect of this is partly based on the solubility of capsaicin in fat and the interaction with protein." The milk binds to the oil with the capsaicin and drains it, as it were.
Recent scientific research confirms this. American scientists compared over seventy participants which drink worked best to extinguish a hot bite, in this case spicy tomato juice. They tested skimmed milk, whole milk, mineral water, lemonade, non-alcoholic beer, cola and water. Milk proved to be the best way to reduce the burning sensation. This, surprisingly, was not dependent on the fat content of the milk, which, according to the researchers, means that the proteins in the drink are more important than the fats.
Yet it does help to eat 'something greasy', such as prawn crackers or a spoonful of peanut butter. If you find the dish too spicy, but would like to continue to eat it, add some sugar to the dish. Sugar makes it less spicy.
See also: NUcheckt: No evidence that spicy food damages your brain
How spicy is a pepper?
The Scoville dish indicates how spicy a chili pepper or spicy sauce is. Tabasco sauce, for example, scores 500 on the Scoville scale, jalapeño peppers between 2,500 and 8,000.
Incidentally, the average Dutch person finds a dish spicy around 500 to 100 Scoville units. That is a lot lower compared to people from many other countries.