Let’s be honest: if you’re not a fan of spicy food, then the thought of trying a new Tex-Mex entrée can be a bit…intimidating. Tex-Mex comes in all different flavors and temperatures, but its reputation for heat is often what sticks out in people’s minds. In fact, this distinction is enough to make some folks cling to what they know and downright refuse to branch out.
If your dislike of spicy foods has caused you to stifle your sense of culinary adventure, then it may help to learn how to best cool your tongue if you ever get in “over your head.” You may not be able to train yourself to like spicy foods, but you can teach yourself to not be completely afraid of trying them!
Let’s take a minute to talk about the science behind spicy foods. More specifically, let’s discuss how and why certain foods are capable of burning your tongue, even if they don’t feel hot to the touch.
Human tongues are home to all kinds of receptors that allow us to register taste and temperature. One such receptor is a protein known as VR1. VR1 is primarily responsible for transmitting temperature information to your brain, which allows the brain to respond accordingly when your body is too hot or too cold. If you’ve ever taken a huge swig of coffee without letting it cool first, it was VR1 receptors that told your brain, “Ack, that’s really hot!” VR1 receptors are essential to your body’s defense against damage; without them, you could seriously burn yourself on hot food or some other object and not make the connection between your injury and the thing that caused it.
Meanwhile, most foods that we consider “spicy” contain a chemical called capsaicin; this substance is naturally occurring in chili peppers but can be added to other foods by artificial means. And when a capsaicin molecule meets a VR1 receptor, it activates the protein, essentially tricking your brain into thinking that you have something physically hot in your mouth. Capsaicin also tends to form a bond—albeit a weak one—with VR1, causing the latter to be stuck in the “on” position. When your face flushes and you start to sweat after biting into a hot pepper, it’s because your brain is trying to cool your body down.
Bottom line: the burning sensation caused by eating spicy foods is merely an illusion. However, it’s an illusion that can really, really hurt!
So, what’s the best way to sooth your mouth the next time you get a little too adventurous at your favorite Tex-Mex restaurant? Here are the usual suspects, and the one that comes out on top may just surprise you:
■ When your tongue is burning, you may be tempted to down a glass of cold water. After all, water is generally used to snuff out fire, and ice will sooth burns on your skin. But in this case, water is not the best solution! Capsaicin molecules are hydrophobic, meaning that they don’t respond well—and will even repel—water molecules. Just like how plain water can’t clean oil or grease off of your hands, water can’t do much to loosen the capsaicin molecules’ hold on your VR1 receptors. In fact, the water may actually just spread the capsaicin around in your mouth, making the problem worse! Drinking water is better than doing nothing, mind you, and putting ice on your tongue may help dull the pain. But if you want to stop the sensation quickly and totally, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
■ Many folks like to have some kind of alcoholic beverage when they’re eating Tex-Mex food; there’s nothing quite like a frozen margarita or a chilled beer to accompany sizzling plates of fajitas. And it is true that alcohol can dissolve capsaicin better than plain water can. But most alcoholic beverages just aren’t strong (read: concentrated) enough to resolve the issue quickly, and a large number of people can’t or don’t drink alcohol, anyway. For these reasons, the alcohol route just isn’t the most practical option in a spicy food emergency. Of course, if you consume a bunch of alcohol very quickly, you may find yourself so tipsy that you no longer care about your burnt tongue—you’ll have to decide whether or not that’s the route you want to take!
■ When the chips are down, there’s one thing that can usually stop capsaicin in its tracks: dairy. If your tongue is burning so strongly that you feel like you could pucker your lips and breathe fire, seek help in the form of a glass of milk, a big bite of sour cream sauce, or even a bowl of ice cream. The secret is casein, a type of protein that’s naturally found in milk and other dairy products. Casein has just the right chemical composition to dissolve capsaicin molecules and wash them away, allowing your VR1 receptors to resume an “off” position. Subsequently, your brain stops thinking that your mouth is burning, and you experience sweet, sweet relief. If you’re planning to take a walk on the wild side and order some spicy food, it may be wise to order a tiny bowl of sour cream on the side—or have a dessert milkshake waiting in the wings!
Different people have different levels of tolerance for spicy foods. Some folks always want to dump extra hot sauce or chili powder onto their plate, and others wrinkle up their noses at the slightest hint of heat in their dinner entrée. That’s okay, we don’t all have to like the same things. But it’s still important to know the best way to cool your tongue if you ever find yourself with a mouthful of food that’s just too hot for your taste. Not only is it useful information to have, but the science behind it all is pretty fascinating, too.
Oh, and don’t worry: if you’re absolutely, 100% certain that you just can’t “do” spicy foods, there’s plenty of mild Tex-Mex entrées out there for you to enjoy. You will not go hungry, that’s for sure!