Have you ever been in a restaurant and asked for a dish you didn't know was spicy? Well, it happened to me last night and while the food was good, I really didn't enjoy it. It was incredibly spicy and water didn't seem to help. Then, my boyfriend remembered reading once that milk was good for mouth burn, so we finished our meal with vanilla ice cream. It worked, but why?
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I knew that the chemical compound that makes food spicy is called capsaicin, but apart from it's presence in peppers (and a little bit in tomatoes), I didn't know much else. So, research began and I learned that capsaicin is a hydrophobic irritant, meaning it hates water and just won't wash away. It will be picked up, however, by oily solutions, which are also hydrophobic. Well, I'm not ready to rinse my mouth with olive oil, so there must be an alternative.
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Milk contains a protein called casein, that has one hydrophobic and one hydrophyllic end. Casein molecules organize themselves forming a sphere, with the water-hating ends on the inside and water-loving ends on the outside. This is called a micelle (see the picture below). The casein bubble surrounds the capsaicin molecule and washes it away, in the same way that soap washes away grease.
Scientists from University of California, Davis, found that cold solutions were very effective and that sugar water was as effective as milk. So it seems our ice cream approach was perfect. What if you don't have milk or ice cream nearby? Any dairy product will help, as will alcohol. In case of emergency, some bread may absorb the oil and carry it away from your irritated mouth.
If you are into spicy food, these tips might help you enjoy hotter peppers. For people who prefer milder meals, I hope you remember this post if you are presented with a spicy surprise.
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