Hot sauce got you fired up? Drink milk, research says

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published July 22, 2016

Key Takeaways

If your mouth is on fire from a chile pepper or a Buffalo wing that’s just too darned hot, the best way to extinguish it isn’t with water or beer—but with a drink of milk, according to researchers at New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute, in Las Cruces, NM.

“Capsaicin is the chemical compound found in chile peppers that makes them taste hot,” said Paul Bosland, PhD, Regents Professor of Horticulture and Director of the Chile Pepper Institute. Capsaicin is also the ingredient that puts the hot in hot sauce and other foods.

“It turns out that milk has a protein in it that replaces the capsaicin on the receptors on your tongue. It’s really the quickest way to alleviate the burning feeling,” explained Dr. Bosland (who is popularly known as the “Chileman.”)

When capsaicin attaches to receptors in your mouth, it sends the same signal to your brain as if you had touched something hot, Dr. Bosland explained. This is also the reason why some people begin to sweat when they eat spicy hot foods.

The protein in milk and other dairy products—such as sour cream or even ice cream—is casein. This protein strips the capsaicin molecule from its receptor binding site, which stops your tongue from feeling the burn.

To prove it, Dr. Bosland and colleagues conducted a small informal study in 1995, which demonstrated that milk relieves the burning sensation faster and at a lower quantity than either water or fruit punch.

“It was common knowledge that milk worked the best, and at the time we thought it was the fat in milk that provided the relief,” he explained. “Chemists later discovered that casein in milk is nonpolar like capsaicin [molecules] and the two will bind to bring about relief. So non-fat milk works just fine, too.”  

What about other drinks that traditionally accompany hot foods—do beer, margaritas, or sangria displace capsaicin from your mouth’s receptors? Nope, and water won’t either, the Chiliman explained. These liquids only spread the capsaicin around your mouth.

“Carbohydrates also replace the capsaicin on the receptors, just not as effectively as milk,” Dr. Bosland noted. “These would be things like bread or sugar. Sugar is the better of the two. That’s why we see the traditional Mexican desserts like flan and sopapillas with honey. These are made from breads, sugars, and milk.”

So, when you’ve bitten off more jalapeño than you can handle, don’t reach for water. Milk does a body (and a tongue) good.

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