Anyone who has ever wondered why eating certain spicy foods makes your mouth feel like it’s on fire should take a look at a new video released by the American Chemical Society, which explains the science behind some of the world’s most excruciating dishes.
The main culprit is a molecule called capsaicin, which is found in the tissue of a number of hot peppers – including the infamous ghost chili
, as well as the scotch bonnet and the habanero – and binds to pain receptors in the mouth. This stimulates the brain into coordinating a response designed to get the invading substance out of the body as quickly as possible, by making the eyes stream, the nose run, and the sweat begin to pour. There’s even a scale to measure the intensity of this response, called the Scoville scale
However, rather than waiting for the body to recover naturally, pepper-stricken diners can take matters into their own hands by seeking out a non-polar
substance to dissolve the capsaicin in. Non-polar molecules are those which are not positively charged at one end and negatively charged at the other. Since capsaicin falls into this category, it can only be dissolved in other non-polar substances – of which water is not one. Milk, however, contains molecules such as fat and a protein called casein, which are ideal for removing capsaicin from the pain receptors in the mouth.
Obviously, you don’t have to be a scientist to know not to take a bite out of a hot chili, although by watching the video below, you’ll at least be able to understand the chemistry behind your pain the next time you eat something that’s just a little too fiery.