Cleanse your Pshhhh

OK, this is not a feminist article at all, but it does involve another Skepchick favorite: wine.  The Pshhhh I am speaking about cleansing is your palate. Recently, I read an article in Current Biology about palate cleansing and it didn’t leave me satisfied. Their study gave a slightly vague reason about why wine goes with cheese and peanut butter goes with jelly. Their conclusion was right on, but there is an underlying chemical phenomena the article didn’t mention.

In this study they determined that a mild astringent, such as wine or tea, alternated with eating a fatty food, such as a cheeseburger or steak, creates the sensation of a meal. This makes perfect sense. They also claimed that water did not produce the same sensation. This also makes perfect sense. Biologists like to blame this on enzymes, which is completely true. But being a chemist, I wanted to examine this at the molecular level.

Perhaps it was the repetitive (but not defined) ‘astringent‘ terminology that I didn’t like. This word reminds of a teenage acne solution, but I went to the ever trusty wikipedia for an applicable solution. Astringency was defined as the puckery mouthfeel caused by tannins. So what is a tannin? Tannins are acids, which you can see from the structure below. All of those OH (hydroxyl) groups are acidic. There are a bunch. If you are a fan of wine (which I am), you often hear people refer to tannins, which is simply one of the  acidic components of wine. Tannins also exist in other familiar food and drink items such as tea, coffee, berries, and nuts.

Tannic Acid

Let’s look at the other component of the equation: fat. Fats consist of molecules named tryglycerides, which are not acidic. They are composed of hydrocarbon chains with just a few ‘acidic-esque’ functional groups. Perhaps you have heard of fatty acids. In these, there are significantly less acidic components compared to a tannin. The only acidic elements here are the hydrogen atoms that neighbor oxygen atoms. There are way less of them compared to tannic acid pictured above. Hence, fats are considered to be more basic.


So this astringent/fatty stimuli affect is simply combining an acid and base that neutralizes your mouth. The astringent takes away the fatty feeling left in your mouth after a bite of meat. Palate cleansing – Voila! Also, water is a neutral substance, which is why the same sensation isn’t achieved upon guzzling H2O after a fatty bite.

Many of our foods go together like this such as salad dressing (oil & vinegar) or salsa with guacamole. Meats are marinated with an acidic base. You drink coke with a hot dog. Beer with chicken wings. One of my favorites is a reuben sandwich: sauerkraut balances the swiss, the pickle balances the Russian dressing and corned beef.

Taken at Herschel’s Eastside Deli in Philadelphia

This reaction happens in most things you eat. What is your favorite acid/base oral reaction? Do you have a favorite palate cleanser?


Jacqueline, a true Floridian, wandered up to the tundra of Athens, Georgia to receive her PhD in computational quantum chemistry. Returning to her roots, she is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher in Tampa in the field of computational biochemistry investigating the wonders of penicillin-like drugs. When she is not slaving over the computer, her varied interests include international travel, Brazilian jiu jitsu, kickboxing, fancy food, (American) football, and Belgian quadrupels. She is also the founder of, a football blog with an exclusive female writing staff. Check out her sports ramblings there or follow her on Twitter @jhargis9.

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  1. I don’t do this any longer because dairy and I stopped getting along. But when I was younger I looooved a HUGE glass of milk with spaghetti. I also liked milk with tacos.

    I also still enjoy chocolate milk with spaghettios but the milk is in almond form now.

    Orange soda and cheese pizza is an excellent combo as well.

  2. A cup of strong and sweet Ceylon tea (no milk please) together with a young Gouda cheese sandwich. Real Gouda cheese, not the processed crap. Even better, a grass cheese sandwich with tea.

      1. Hihihi, alas no, it’s cheese made from the milk of cows that in spring go back to pasture. The switch from hay to grass makes the cows give milk that’s extra creamy in the first weeks. After a couple of weeks the milk returns to normal, so grass cheese is only availlable in May and June. After that it’s gone. The cheese is so soft and creamy it’s almost spreadable. A real delicatessen.
        I’ve never seen cheese with that other grass. There’s cheese with all kinds of herbs and spices, so it should be possible. Now there’s an idea!
        What a way to start the day!

  3. Mmmmmmm!!! This article made me hungry.

    Thanks for the details, Jacqueline. I’ll bring them up at wine tastings to sound smart.

    I love anything pickled with tzatziki sauce and a fluffy Greek pita! Omnomnom.

  4. Well my dad is a bio-chemist and mother is a biologist and so my whole life I grew with them telling me that folk remedies like “wine clears you palette and has magical health benefits, etc.” were bullshit.

    However, we always ate food combinations that were considered healthful in western & Indian culture even though we knew the health benefits arising from the combinations were likely non-existent.

    I think a lot of us have specific folk food remedies burned into our brain culturally and I think a lot of us who know that they have little real benefit still honor them because we enjoy them.

  5. The triglycerides aren’t really basic. I think it has less to do with formal charges (acid/neutral/basic) then with hydrophobic/hrdrophilic interactions.

    The triglycerides are greasy (lipohilic) and can chase away the more polar tannins from a hydrophobic environment (protein receptors in your tongue). Water can’t really displace either, being, well, hydrophilic (water lover water!)

    Same principle as when you have eaten a hot pepper (lots of capsaicin, very greasy). The burn can’t be helped by water, but milk with its high lipid content does the trick.

  6. Honestly I don’t know which is my favorite–buffalo hot wings maybe?–but I do know that I really really want a Reuben now. YUMMMM, Reubens.

  7. Vintage Cheddar cheese and pickles – either gherkins or little peppers – on sourdough bread. Plus a bit of German garlic metwurst (sort of a soft salami). For a feast fit for a king (or queen), use smoked duck as the meat. Even better with mango chutney…

    I better stop before I get too carried away.

    Nope, can’t stop. Wintertime eqivalent:
    Toasties with pizza sauce and cheddar cheese. Sprinkle Italian herbs on top and a bit of garlic salt. For a feast fit for a king/queen I mix in a little Thai red curry paste with the sauce.

    This recipe has evolved over the years. These days I toast the bread first, add the topping then zap in the microwave for a minute or so. This way the cheese gets properly melted and the herbs and spices penetrate right through the mix.

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