Science of spicy: Neuroscience explains why beer isn’t your best bet to knock down spicy foods
BRECKENRIDGE — The sauce for this particular pile of chicken wings claims ingredients such as Carolina reapers, ghost peppers and other chilies with names that literally evoke death, along with some everyday habaneros, jalapenos and bell peppers — you know, just for kicks.
You chomp into the first wing, coating your tongue in a blistering slick of sauce that registers in the millions of Scoville units, and your body immediately begins to react: tongue tingling, mouth watering and nose running; your ears burn, your forehead sweats and you begin to turn a glorious shade of crimson.
If you were a cartoon character, then steam would now be whistling out of your facial orifices.
This was a bad idea, you quickly reason, and you reach for the nearest thirst quencher to put out the flames: beer. The cold effervescence fills your mouth and you let out an audible sigh, but the relief is fleeting. It’s like putting out a bonfire with gasoline.
What is spicy?
What went wrong? Aren’t beer and hot wings on the same level of matrimony as wine and cheese, coffee and doughnuts, milk and cookies? Shouldn’t dousing the inferno in hoppy, malty goodness assuage the burn?
Well, no, as it turns out, and the rationale is found in neuroscience and chemistry, as Dr. Nicole Garneau, curator of health sciences and director of the Genetics of Taste Lab at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, explained in a seminar at the recent Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival in Breckenridge.
“Today, we are going to talk about irritants, things that cause pain in the mouth,” Garneau said, digging into the science of spicy.
When receptors on the tongue detect the various things you put into your mouth, they send messages along the trigeminal nerve to the brain. Taste receptors convey messages of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami (rich and savory) and, some scientists argue, fat.
But when your tongue comes in contact with capsaicin, a compound found in chili peppers, or allyl isothiocyanate, which brings the heat to wasabi, horseradish and mustard, it doesn’t trigger those taste receptors. Instead, it trips the receptors for your sense of touch; namely, irritating messages of pain and heat, Garneau said.
Each of these sensations can be perceived on its own — like the pain when you bite your tongue or the warmth of a cup of hot chocolate — but the combination of the two is what we call “spicy,” a mouthfeel, rather than a flavor. The more touch receptors you have in your mouth, the stronger the spicy message perceived by your brain.
Beer’s sad truth
Garneau had seminar participants compile a list of suggestions for how to stifle the burn. One by one, she ticked through the spicy combatants and their potential merits and flaws.
“Your behavior is going to say grab something cold,” she said, naming ice water or even a fan on the face as examples. “It’ll give you temporary relief. You’re hitting the receptors for cold. At the brain level, you’re doing something that counteracts it; (but) as soon as the cold goes away, the heat goes back up.
“Cold can temporarily decrease it, but it doesn’t solve the problem.”
Throwing any palatable fluid such as water — and, yes, sadly, even beer — at the problem also isn’t going to help. In fact, the carbonic acid in fizzy drinks creates bubbles that pop and trigger even more of the pain receptors in your mouth. Very bitter or sour foods have the same effect, magnifying the pain, rather than smothering it.
“Sugar knocks down a pain sensation, so potentially it’ll work, but not at the chemical level at the tongue,” Garneau said, poking a hole in yet another potential solution.
Douse the flames
So what’s a wing-lover to do?
To get to the bottom of the conundrum, consider the chemical properties of the offending ingredient. Capsaicin, allyl isothiocyanate and other spicy compounds possess an oily, hydrophobic property. Once those oily compounds bond with the touch receptors in your mouth, the only way to pull them away from the receptors and stop sending signals to the brain is to either dissolve them or, potentially, scrub them off.
Fats dissolve in fats, so that dram of ranch or bleu cheese is a good place to start, followed by a few glasses of whole milk and maybe a fist-sized hunk of cheese for good measure. There’s not a lot of scientific proof to support the scrubbing method, or what should be used as a scrubber, but Garneau said she’s working on it.
“My guess is that scrubbing is physically taking it away, instead of a chemical dissolving it and taking it away,” she said. “You’re taking this elbow grease and getting it off … but there’s not a lot of science for it yet.”