Does sugar help with spicy food? Exploring the evidence

Few sensations are as exhilarating yet potentially overwhelming as the burning sensation induced by spicy foods. But it’s easy to overdo it, and when you do, you’ll be scrambling to find something to ease the pain.

Among the myriad strategies for quelling this heat, sugar is often suggested as an effective remedy for a burning mouth.

In this article, we dive into the rumors as well as the scientific research to dissect whether sugar truly holds the key to soothing the scorching aftermath of consuming spicy delights. 

What makes your mouth burn when you eat spicy food?

When discussing spicy food, we usually talk about dishes that derive their kick from chili peppers. These peppers contain a fiery element called capsaicin, the active ingredient responsible for their spiciness. While other foods like cinnamon or wasabi might come to mind as spicy, their effects are typically short-lived. For the purpose of this article, we’re focusing on the spiciness induced by capsaicin. 

How does sugar help with spicy food?

You might be familiar with the idea that sugar can help alleviate the fiery burn in your mouth or even your hands after encountering spiciness. Several theories are circulating about why sugar might have this effect: it could bind with capsaicin, absorb it, dilute it, or create a sensory distraction. 

However, the question remains—does any of this hold true?

Is there any evidence it really works?

While the research landscape exploring the effects of sugar on capsaicin-induced burning sensation remains rather limited, there are intriguing findings to consider. Notably, a study involving capsaicin consumption alongside other substances revealed that adding sucrose (sugar) to capsaicin decreased the intensity and duration of the mouth’s burning sensation (Nasrawi & Pangborn, 1989). 

Furthermore, investigations have indicated that oral sucrose intake can exhibit analgesic properties (Lefrak et al., 2006), which might explain the potential reduction in the burning sensation when consuming sugar alongside or after spicy foods.

Moreover, a wealth of anecdotal evidence supports the notion that sugar could play a role in diminishing spiciness. It could be worth considering a dash of sugar as a potential remedy in situations with limited alternatives. While comprehensive scientific validation may be somewhat lacking, the possible connection between sugar and alleviating spiciness sparks curiosity and warrants further exploration.

Sugar vs. milk for reducing spiciness

When it comes to quelling the fire of spiciness, and provided you’re not adhering to a vegan or lactose-intolerant lifestyle, milk tends to wield a more potent effect than sugar. 

Research lends weight to this notion, with a study showcasing that milk’s fat content outperformed the sucrose (sugar) content of milk in terms of reducing spiciness (Lee & Kim, 2013).

Furthermore, an alternative study indicated that milk emerged as a more robust contender in alleviating the burn compared to Kool-Aid, a sugary beverage (Nolden et al., 2019). 

These findings spotlight milk as a potential go-to remedy for those seeking solace from the relentless heat of spiciness.

Does soda help the spicy sensation?

Despite its sugar content, soda’s effervescence appears to render it less proficient in quelling the sensation of mouth burn compared to non-carbonated counterparts such as milk or Kool-Aid. It’s worth noting that the cold, carbonated nature of beverages can amplify chemesthetic sensations, potentially compromising the effectiveness of soda in combating spiciness (Nolden et al., 2019). 

So, while soda might offer a sweet respite, it’s not as adept at soothing the fiery aftermath of spicy indulgence as other options like milk.

So, should you eat sugar to reduce spice?

While sugar might not be the ultimate solution for extinguishing the fiery aftermath of consuming spicy food, it could offer some modest relief. If you’re aiming to temper the intensity of the heat in your cooking, incorporating a touch of sugar could lend a hand in curbing the resultant burn. While more effective options are available, if sugar is your only recourse, it’s certainly worth experimenting with. So, while not the silver bullet, sugar can play a minor role in taming the heat, especially when alternatives are scarce.

References

  • Lee, K.-W., & Kim, K.-O. (2013). Effects of fat and sucrose in palate cleansers on discrimination of burning sensation of capsaicin samples. Food Science and Biotechnology, 22(3), 691–696. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10068-013-0133-6
  • Lefrak, L., Burch, K., Caravantes, R., Knoerlein, K., DeNolf, N., Duncan, J., Hampton, F., Johnston, C., Lockey, D., RN, C. M.-W., McLendon, D., Porter, M., Richardson, C., Robinson, C., & RN, K. T. (2006). Sucrose analgesia: Identifying potentially better practices. Pediatrics, 118(Supplement_2). https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2006-0913r
  • Nasrawi, C. W., & Pangborn, R. M. (1989). The influence of tastants on oral irritation by capsaicin. Journal of Sensory Studies, 3(4), 287–294. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-459x.1989.tb00451.x
  • Nolden, A. A., Lenart, G., & Hayes, J. E. (2019). Putting out the fire – efficacy of common beverages in reducing oral burn from capsaicin. Physiology & Behavior, 208, 112557. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2019.05.018

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