The strength comes from capsaicinoids. Of course, the varieties differ from one another, but generally the capsaicin delivers 50-70% of the strength in the form of sharpness and bite, while 20-25% comes from dihydrocapsaicin as burning sensations in the palate and throat. Capsaicin is not detected by our taste faculties. It is identified by our nerve receptors, which send pain signals through the central nervous system to our brain. It is the same function that starts when, for example, you burn yourself on something hot. The brain registers a burning pain, whether it comes from a chili or you have actually burned yourself on something hot.
The reaction pattern of the body
We experience capsaicin as a burning sensation in the mouth and oral cavity, and it makes our eyes and nose run. The places where there are the most receptors will be the places where the pain feels strongest. Your mouth and throat have many receptors, so naturally it hurts here. This is also the reason why getting chili in your eye is quite unpleasant, or feeling the chili on the inside of your palm. The body then reacts as if it is in danger and will try to soothe the pain. You will begin to sweat, get tears in the eyes, sneeze or feel like you are going to vomit. This is the way the mucous membranes counteract pain. Even though the body has an intense reaction to capsaicin, it is totally harmless to the body. Over time, you can get used to consuming more and more capsaicin, and your tolerance threshold for ‘burning’ gets greater and greater. If, on the other hand, you take a break from eating chili, the sensitivity of the receptors to the capsaicin will be restored, and strong chili will again feel strong, just like the first time you tasted it So, you can be a hardcore chili eater if you regularly burn off your nerve receptors. The good news is that if you take a break, your nerve endings will reconstitute. That’s a win-win situation for any chili lover.
Contrary to what many people believe, the strongest part of the chili is not actually the seeds, but the placenta and the pith. That is the white part to which the chilis are attached. A chili is not equally strong all over. Closest to the stalk, the seeds are attached to the placenta, which contains 90% of the capsaicin. So, for a less strong sensation, you can simply cut off the seeds and the placenta.
What alleviates the pain?
Capsaicin dissolves in fat and oils. That makes whole milk or olive oil a good choice, if you want immediate relief from pain. Ice cream and yoghurt cool the pain. Otherwise, simply give it time. With a little patience, you’ll gradually see the train disappearing on the horizon. The fog will clear, and after about an hour your five senses will be restored.
What doesn’t alleviate the pain?
Capsaicin is water resistant, so water doesn’t help. Sadly, beer, alcohol and fizzy drinks also make the pain worse.