The Taste Cycle

Have you ever noticed that it’s hard to stop eating spicy chicken wings? You take a bite, and your mouth burns, like flames passing across your tongue each time you breathe in and out, and little beads of sweat form across your brow, and you think, “That’s my last, I can’t take another bite,” and then you have a nip of celery and a swig of beer and there you are, chowing down another.

Okay, so for those of you that are shaking your heads “No,” read no further. But I know some of you know what I am talking about, and I know some of you want to know why…

So gather ’round my spice-addicted, nerdy, foodies. I’m going to break it down.

Capsaicin, Casein, and Carbonation.

Cayenne pepper, as you may know, is the main ingredient in buffalo hot sauce. Cayenne pepper has capsaicin, a chemical compound found in the white interior edges of peppers which gives them their characteristic “hot” taste.

When capsaicin comes into contact with your tongue or skin, it causes an imbalance at the cellular level and triggers sensory receptors to transmit a pain signal. (A similar reaction occurs when a food is temperature-hot.) In turn, this pain reaction causes the nervous system to release endorphins, chemicals which reduce the sense of pain and actually induce a sense of well-being (endorphins produced by the human body are, by the way, actually related to opiates). Hence, most people feel a “rush” when eating spicy-hot foods.

Although endorphins may reduce some of the pain, it’s likely that some sense of “burning” will persist. Lucky for us, there is another type of food that can take away the burn. And that is…cheese. That is to say, the casein protein found in cheese and other dairy products.

Casein proteins latch onto capsaicin compounds on the tongue and “wash” them away, in the same way detergent removes dirt. Casein is uniquely good at “scrubbing” away capsaicin because casein is fat-loving and capsaicin is fat-soluble, and their compound structures are attracted to each other. (Cold water, by the way, will do nothing to douse the flames from a capsaicin “burn” because H2O just doesn’t love fat the way these guys do.)

But now this washing machine in your mouth will certainly need a rinse cycle. And that’s where your cold, delicious beer of choice comes in. Not only will the beer reduce any of that remaining cayenne burn (as capsaicin is also somewhat alcohol-soluble), the carbonation and acidity will also serve to lift the paste of the cheese from the palate, and actually bring forward the cheese’s flavor (which is why quality cheese here is key). Lastly, the carbonation creates a tingling, refreshing sensation that “cleanses” the palate for that next bite.

And so the process begins again…