We've all been there... the moment "Bring it on!" turns to "Oh please, make it stop!" Eating spicy foods does at times seem to encourage a sense of bravado, pushing many to see just where their boundaries are (or aren't). What can one do in these trying times? While we've yet to find a magic bullet to address such situations, there are a few things we've found helpful in reducing the time and intensity of this experience – along with a few preventive measures. First, a little background.
Capsaicin is an alkaloid protein that's responsible for creating the burning, or pungent, sensation caused by spicy peppers. Contact with capsaicin triggers heat sensors that are located throughout the body, creating the illusion of heat. Though, illusion or not, the feeling is quite real. The more capsaicin that's present, the more heat perceived.
In dealing with its affects, it's helpful to know that capsaicin is mostly insoluble in water. It is, however, soluble in alcohol. Additionally, casein in dairy products helps to break the bonds capsaicin forms on nerve receptors and fatty foods can bind with capsaicin helping to neutralize.
It's helpful to know the sensation is temporary and will lessen significantly – usually in 5 to 10 minutes. Albeit, those can be a long 5-10 minutes! Instinctively, many people will reach for water, which not only won't help, but may make things temporarily worse. With capsaicin not being water soluble, the water will only work to spread around the capsaicin.
A 1990 study by Physiology & Behavior found mouth-rinsing with cold temperatures, around 40°F, works better than warm temperatures as did sugar water (10% sugar concentration) and a cold glass of sweetened milk. They also found alcohol in concentrations of 5% did not help.
Our personal favorite is eating string cheese. Peeling into very fine strings and chewing thoroughly to increase the surface area contact with the mouth, the fatty cheese helps to absorb and disarm the capsaicin. We've also found honey to work well.
While beer contains capsaicin dissolving alcohol, it's also mostly water and doesn't help much. If you're going to go the alcohol route, swishing a small amount of a chilled, distilled spirit is probably your best bet. At this point, we can't personally vouch for this method, though it is one we plan on testing at some point in the not too distant future.
If you've ingested the offending pepper(s) on an empty stomach, it's quite possible you'll have an uncomfortable stomach-ache a few minutes after the mouth sensation fades. We've found this discomfort can sometimes be worse than the initial pain. Drinking whole milk, and/or eating some food to absorb the peppers as they digest does help, especially if done before the stomach sensation sets in.
Normally, "before" would proceed "after", though when it comes to spicy foods, it's usually after the exposure when there's the most interest in the topic. That said, now fully aware of the power of the pepper, there are some things that can be done beforehand to have a more enjoyable experience.
If you love the taste of chile peppers, but want to tame the heat, meal preparation can have a significant influence on the heat profile. We like to use the term heat profile, because the hot sensation from chile peppers can express itself in different ways, namely the associated time response, intensity and region stimulation.
Sometimes the heat sensation is immediate, noticeable with the first taste. Other times, the heat doesn't express itself as much initially, but then builds over time. Our preference is for a delayed response, which is usually accompanied with a pleasant warming sensation. We've found that smoking the peppers is a great way to back-door the heat with the added bonus of proving a sweet, smoky flavor.
Though, a smoky flavor won't pair well with all dishes. Other options we've found helpful for delaying, dispersing the heat include pairing with dairy, corn starch, avocado or coconut milk.
Why do those items produce a delayed reaction? We're not sure. Though, it's interesting that all those items also help to dissolve/neutralize the capsaicin. With 22 known capsaicin compounds, our guess is that the different types of capsaicin proteins express themselves in different ways and such additives may suppress the affects of some, while allowing others to be perceived more fully.
This is usually the first thing that comes to mind with spicy food, the overall hotness. It can range from an uncomfortable, intense burning to a low, slow burn that produces little discomfort paired with a general warming sensation.
As far as intensity goes, it's simply a matter of what you (and your guests) prefer. The items used above to delay the heat are also good at lowering the intensity. Though, even delayed, the intensity can build up to intolerable levels. The amount and type of peppers used are the big determiner. Additionally, there are a few other ways to manage the heat...
Different peppers seem to affect different regions of the mouth – the tip of the tongue, the middle region, or the back. Regional affect is a new perspective for us and we don't currently have a variety related breakdown. This is a topic we're looking to pay more attention to going forward. As such, we're not sure how this, or if this, influences the perception of heat or flavor.
As mentioned earlier, capsaicin can also have an uncomfortable affect on the stomach – especially when peppers are eaten by themselves on an empty stomach. If you're planning on eating/sampling chile peppers on their own, it's a good idea to have something to eat beforehand.
Peppers can be just as uncomfortable when they, or their oil, comes in contact with the skin. When cutting or de-seeding peppers, it's good practice to wear gloves. This is especially true when de-seeding as the amount of contact involved can cause the burning sensation to last for over a day. It's also a good practice to wash off the gloves with either soap and water or vegetable oil before removing them. Or, using disposable food prep gloves that can simply be thrown-away or recycled.
If you're doing some light cutting and decide to go glove-less, it's still a good idea wash your hands immediately afterward. Most people won't detect mild capsaicin exposure on their fingers. However, they'll become quickly aware of such exposure when their hands touch other, more sensitive, parts of the body. Be especially careful of this if removing or putting-in contact lenses later on; we've ruined a few pairs of contact lenses due to forgetting this.
If skin exposure to capsaicin is causing discomfort, washing with vegetable oil can help to lessen the irritation.
What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger is also a truism when it comes to adapting to capsaicin. Repeated, consistent exposure does help to increase one's tolerance to its effects. In addition to making you more heat tolerant (and impressing your friends), frequent chile pepper consumption (done responsibly) is also believed to be good for you!
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