Dear Dr. Katz,
It may sound a little silly, but my family swears by an old curative for bad breath: chili peppers. They say that chewing on a pepper eliminates odors and gets the juices flowing in your mouth. I've tried it, and I can't say for sure whether it worked. Is this treatment for real, or are my relatives playing a prank on me?
-Andrew F. (Grosse Pointe, MI)
So you want to know if treating bad breath with chili peppers is a good idea, Andrew? Well, I can tell you that your family is on the right track, even though they are ultimately wrong about using spices for halitosis.
Your suspicions about peppers are well founded. After all, who hasn't eaten spicy Mexican or Indian food and then suffered the oral consequences? Meals like these are almost tailor-made to create bad breath.
Why? Peppers contain large amounts of volatile sulfur compounds, which are the molecules that give halitosis its pungent, unpleasant odor. In fact, chilis would be better known for this characteristic if it weren't for garlic and onions, two bulbs that consistently steal the stinky spotlight (and rightfully so).
Do peppers do anything to mitigate the smell of oral odor? Your family was right about one thing: eat a pepper, and you'll produce large amounts of saliva, which temporarily prevents bacteria from multiplying. But that's about it.
The only reference I can find to treating bad breath with peppers is in the journal Medicus Judaicus, which states that according to ancient Jewish custom, rabbis with bad breath were encouraged to eat a pepper. Given that this custom hasn't exactly flourished, it's safe to say that burning your tongue with a red-hot chili pepper is no way to sweeten your breath.
Instead, you might try a specialty breath freshening rinse and a tongue scraper. These can reduce your oral odor without leaving you in desperate need of a glass of water.