Why does milk help soothe the chilli burn?

by House of Scoville
June 29, 2017

If you’ve ever been the victim of a hot chilli eating prank, I certainly hope that the prankster had a glass of milk ready for you after they got a good laugh. If not, then they certainly could have made your life a bit easier - unless they offered you a glass of water with your chilli sauce, which would have made the situation even worse!

Or, maybe they simply have no idea about the how’s and why’s about eating hot chilli peppers and didn’t know that you can reduce the burn factor afterwards. That’s what we’re here to help you understand.

Why does milk help soothe the chilli burn?

What makes a hot chilli pepper burn?

First, you’ll need to understand the reason for the burn before you can understand the catalyst to the cure.

Hot chilli peppers contain a compound known as capsaicin, which is a pretty cool chemical for lots of reasons.

  • It’s an extremely potent anti-inflammatory, antioxidant nutrient and it can do wonders for your immune system and digestive system
  • It hurts to eat, and doing so makes you a badass chilli-head
  • Contrary to the pain it causes, capsaicin is also used in a lot of topical anaesthetic pain relievers

The mechanism behind the burn of capsaicin is what’s relevant to this article. To get to the bottom of that, we have to look at two of our favourite senses.

Taste and smell are both responsible for our perception of flavour, which is the combination of different chemicals sensed by these two chemosenses. In addition to taste and smell, these two senses are also able to pick up the sensation of pain, which is what’s going on when you’re eating a hot chilli pepper.

Capsaicin stimulates the sensation of pain by triggering receptors in the targeted area (in this case, mostly our tongue and throat) that would also be triggered during an actual physical burn. These receptors send a message to the brain, telling it that you’re being burned, and in response, your brain triggers a pain sensation.

So why doesn’t water help?

Well, to put it quite simply, because capsaicin is an oil. (Less simply - it has a long hydrocarbon tail which causes it to adhere strongly to the lipoprotein, or fat receptors on the tongue.)

Oils are fatty and don’t dissolve very well in water, so the water you’re pouring onto your spicy tongue is essentially just washing over the capsaicin molecules that are stuck to the fat cells on your tongue.

Capsaicin is soluble in alcohol and vegetable oils, so a shot of vodka or a shot of olive oil would probably do a pretty good job of washing the burn away. Neither of these things are milk, though, and don’t explain why milk is such a magical substance for people who have bitten off more than they can chew.

Why is milk so good for dulling the burn from spicy food?

Mammal’s milk contains a compound known as casein.

This compound is the reason that mammal’s milk has been used traditionally as a cure for the burn from spicy food. Casein is a compound that binds easily to fats and oils, and thus when you wash down your jalapenos with a glass of milk, the casein molecules happily pick up as many capsaicin molecules as they can while they’re swishing past.

Despite this, there’s only so much casein content in any type of mammal’s milk. If you’re eating food that’s incredibly spicy, then there’s only so much milk can really do for you, unless you were to extract the casein from the milk.

Extracting casein from milk

This isn’t really as hard as it sounds, but it might seem a bit excessive to people who aren’t chilli-heads - or who don’t play a lot of pranks.

Casein exist as globules in milk and it what gives milk its white colour. About 80 percent of the protein in cow’s milk exists as casein. Fortunately for us, casein has two important attributes.

  • It precipitates out of a solution when exposed to an acid and heated
  • It creates an elastic substance which is easy to handle

So really, all you need to extract casein from milk (this particular experiment uses powdered  milk that’s been reconstituted) is some distilled white vinegar.

Reconstitute your milk and then heat it up using a thermometer to 105 degrees F. Slowly stir vinegar into the mixture until the casein begins to form white globules that make themselves separate from the rest of the mixture.

Extract these, pressing them against the side of your container to drain excess moisture, and continue adding vinegar until no more casein forms. Drain the separated casein after you’ve finished extracting it and bam - you’ve got your hot chilli burn prevention substance!

You can store your casein in your fridge. I wouldn’t recommend keeping it much longer than you would keep your milk in the fridge for.

In conclusion

If you didn’t already know why water doesn’t get you very far when you’re trying to  reduce the burn from a hot chilli pepper, now you know that - and then some. Water might help a bit - usually just for teh few seconds that it's in the mouth, and particularly if it's really cold, but this is mostly just a sensory distraction - but there are way better options out there.

Beer won’t get you very far either (but what would you expect, since beer’s mostly water) but stronger alcoholic beverages like spirits might dissolve the very compound causing your burn. Milk’s the other contender, ready to wipe away any capsaicin with its fat-loving casein.

Still, where’s the fun in getting rid of the burn? This information is mostly for the well-being of those who simply overestimated their ability to handle spice, or those who are in the care of a chilli-head - because we won’t be needing milk any time soon!

If you're in the mood to feel the burn, we recommend this extra hot chilli sauces, or even these extremely hot chilli sauces. But be sure to have a couple litres of milk by your side before you take the dare.

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