If you haven’t noticed, it’s summer. And it’s hot. Like, miserably hot. My family thought we’d enjoy a relaxing dinner al fresco on the back porch and, just…nope. But it got me thinking…is there anything to the saying that spicy food actually cools you down?
Most of the spicy cuisines we know and love — Indian food, Mexican food, Caribbean food, South Asian food, Moroccan food — come from some of the warmest climates in the world.
Conversely, Scandinavian food isn’t exactly known to make you sweat.
So, I’ve done some research and here’s what I’ve learned about the science of spicy food cooling you down. Spoiler alert: when you’re done reading about the science, go make yourself a spicy bowl of gazpacho or a really tasty curry to cool down tonight.
Do spicy foods cool you down? What the science says.
Capsaicin makes you sweat everywhere: Capsaisin is the compound that makes peppers spicy, and it does trigger a sweat response in your body. Barry Green explains in Scientific American that “the pain system that is triggered by capsaicin is everywhere on the body, so one can get thermal effects everywhere.” In other words, even though your tongue is the point of contact for the spice, you perspire everywhere, and that, as we know, is our body’s mechanism for cooling down.
Hot liquids are more effective than cold liquids for cooling you: If you can’t stand the thought of a hot bowl of soup right now, maybe reconsider that. This article by Jennifer Chaussee for Wired breaks down a study in which some athletes were given warm water and others cold water after a workout. They determined that those who drank warm water actually had lower stored body heat than those who drank the cold water. So, it’s not just spice-heat that’s a factor — hotter temperature of food itself can help cool you down.
However if you just can’t stomach the idea of a hot coffee or tea on a sweltering day, Dr. Ollie Jay, Director of the Thermal Ergonomics Laboratory at the University of Sydney, recommends choosing a room temperature beverage over ice cold.
What you wear when you’re eating matters! Dr. Jay, also explains other conditions that need to be met for hot foods to actually cool you down — it’s not just about spice and temperature. For example, your clothes need to allow you to perspire. So wear cotton! And dryer weather helps in general because humid air hinders perspiration.
Try this cooling mint chutney recipe from The Forked Spoon, a perfect accompaniment to spicy foods.
Our bodies are wired to respond to spicy foods in certain ways. This article at Taste is like the world’s most fascinating Biology 101 class on the way our tastebuds communicate with our brains. Dan Nosowitz shares the evolutionary reasons that our bodies react to spicy foods — as well as to cooling foods, like mint. There’s actual physiology involved here, like chili peppers triggering pain responses to keep your body from burning.
Bonus: The article includes an Ethiopian recipe for Berbere-Roasted Carrots With Chimichurri and Yogurt. Looks amazing!
The best way to cool down from spicy foods: Milk. If you’ve heard that milk is more effective than water at cooling your mouth after a too-spicy mouthful, you’d be right. This article over at Psychology Today explains how milk “soothe the savage serrano,” thanks to the protein called casein found in mammal’s milk. Unfortunately, almond milk, soy milk, and oat milk don’t offer that particular benefit.
Oh, and beer is a decent option too, as it turns out. Not as good as milk. but it does help dissolve capsaicin. So if you’re a fan of Kingfisher with your Vindaloo, enjoy.
Top photo by Aliona Gumeniuk on Unsplash