Hot peppers can be a healthy addition to a meal, but overzealous use of too much cayenne pepper, red pepper flakes sand other spices can overpower your palate. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to help neutralize overly spicy foods and curb the burning sensation in your mouth.
Milk and dairy, starchy ingredients, sugar and bread can help tone down a dish that's too spicy. The casein in milk, for example, dissolves capsaicin and reduces the heat.
Why Are Red Peppers Hot?
Red peppers originated in South America where they were often used as a condiment to flavor, color and preserve food. They also have medicinal uses and potential health benefits. There are many types of red pepper plants, scientifically known as Capsicum annuum, including chili pepper, Tabasco pepper, African chilies, cayenne pepper, paprika and Christmas pepper, as reported in a review published in the Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences in May 2018.
The burning sensation you may encounter after eating a red pepper comes from a compound called capsaicin, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Capsaicin is typically found in the membrane that holds the seeds in the fruit of the pepper plant. It triggers the pain receptors in your tongue and mouth, sending signals to your brain that interprets the message as heat, according to the American Chemical Society (ACS).
Some types of peppers are spicier than others. Small peppers tend to be hotter than larger ones; the more they ripen, the more heat they produce. Therefore, red peppers are generally hotter than green peppers, says the ACS. Dried peppers are hotter than fresh peppers because their capsaicin content is concentrated.
The hotness of a pepper can be measured by the Scoville heat scale, which uses a series of units ranging from 0 to 16 million based on the amount of capsaicin. Jalapeños measure from 5,000 to 50,000 heat units on this scale, while habanero ranks from 100,000 to 350,000.
Read more: Is Hot Sauce Good for You?
Too Much Cayenne Pepper?
Too much crushed red pepper in spaghetti sauce or other spicy dishes can set your mouth on fire. Grabbing for a glass of water won't help. Capsaicin has poor solubility in water, so it will only spread the heat around your mouth, inciting more pain receptors and amping up the burning sensation, reports the ACS.
The preferred and most effective antidote for overheating from too much cayenne pepper or other red pepper spice is milk and its derivatives. Not only does capsaicin dissolve more easily in the fat found in milk, but all dairy products contain casein, a mixture of phosphoproteins that contain all the amino acids, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Drinking a glass of milk or putting a dab of yogurt on your tongue along with, or after eating, a spicy condiment will tone down the heat. According to the ACS, casein helps break the bonds capsaicin forms on nerve receptors.
Most dairy products, including cottage cheese, kefir, buttermilk and ice cream, contain casein and will help quell the burn. This may be the reason some Indian dishes often use yogurt as a condiment, or why sour cream is sometimes served with Mexican dishes, such as burritos and enchiladas.
Other home remedies may help neutralize the tangy red pepper taste too. Keep in mind that everyone detects basic tastes differently due to the configuration of taste receptors. This is dependent on your genes, experiences, age and sense of smell, according to Monell Center. Here are some ideas to consider:
- If you
put too much pepper in soup, you may dilute the heat by adding fatty
liquids or increasing the content of the main ingredient. For example, add more
beans or tomatoes to your chili.
- For too much crushed red pepper in
spaghetti sauce, add sugar or another sweetener.
- For easing mouth discomfort, eating
a piece of bread or other starchy foods may help, according
to the ACS.
- When preparing a recipe that calls for chili peppers, remove the spongy inner ribs and the seeds where most of the capsaicin is found.
Health Benefits and Side Effects
Despite the afterburn of eating red peppers, they have many health benefits. Red chili peppers are a good source of nutrients, antioxidants and phytochemicals. They contain more vitamin C than an orange and are loaded with vitamins A, E and B6, as well as folic acid and potassium, according to the USDA.
Fresh and dried chili peppers were evaluated in an August 2015 cohort study published in the BMJ, which examined the association between consumption of spicy foods and cause-specific mortality. Over 500,000 Chinese adults participated in the seven-year study.
Researchers have found that daily consumption of spicy food was inversely associated with the risk of death from cancer as well as heart and respiratory diseases. Additionally, eating spicy foods more frequently reduced the risk of death due to infections in women.
Read more: Are Hot Peppers Good for You?
However, the U.S. National Library of Medicine reports that the over-consumption of red peppers may cause side effects, including stomach irritation and/or indigestion, sweating, flushing and a runny nose. Prolonged intake of red peppers in large amounts can lead to more serious outcomes like liver damage and spikes in blood pressure.
Red peppers are not recommended to people with gastrointestinal conditions. An October 2013 study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology assessed the dietary habits of 4,763 participants. Researchers concluded that consumption of spicy foods was associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), particularly in women.
Another study published in September 2016 in Neurogastroenterology and Mortality has found that upper GI tract symptoms were more common in women and people who consumed large amounts of spicy foods or were in a younger age group. Intermountain Healthcare advises that you cut out spicy foods from your diet if you have diverticulitis.
- Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences: "A Review of the Effects of Capsicum Annuum L. and Its Constituent, Capsaicin, in Metabolic Syndrome"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: PubChem: "Capsaicin"
- American Chemical Society: "Hot Peppers: Muy Caliente"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: PubChem: "Casein"
- Monell Center: "Monell Taste Primer"
- USDA: "Nutrition Facts for Red Chili Peppers"
- BMJ: "Consumption of Spicy Foods and Total and Cause Specific Mortality: Population Based Cohort Study"
- US National Library of Medicine: "Capsicum"
- Neurogastroenterology and Mortality: "Consumption of Spicy Foods and the Prevalence of Irritable Bowel Syndrome"
- Neurogastroenterology and Mortality: "A Prospective Study on Symptom Generation According to Spicy Food Intake and TRPV1 Genotypes in Functional Dyspepsia Patients"
- Intermountain Healthcare: "Diverticulosis"
- USDA: "Nutrition Facts for Oranges"