Table of Contents
Fish contains compounds that cause a burning sensation when eaten
Certain kinds of fish contain hydrochloric acid, which can make your mouth feel like it is burning. Because these substances are harsh to your taste buds, they create a “fishy” or ammonia-like flavor.
However, this isn’t actually caused by any additives in the fish itself; it is just one of many ways in which acids can affect our senses. For instance, sour foods can hurt your teeth, so animals with sensitive mouths have evolved adaptations to lessen their sensitivity.
In humans, we have similar receptors in the nose that reduce pain after biting something cold. By feeling some pain, you learn how to avoid things that will hurt more if you keep eating or drinking.
These same mechanisms may help prevent damage to your tongue from alcohol, tea, or other beverages that contain acids. However, long term use of acids to relieve pain can weaken those receptors over time.
When you drink enough beer or wine to lose the “burn”, you then don’t experience the loss of function unless you eat or drink anything else that has an acidic component. You also stop wanting to spend money on drinks to begin with.
Thus, while experiencing an acid reflux burn might feel good short term, it’s potentially harmful to your stomach and esophagus, and contributes to another form of painful dry skin.
Ammonia is an acid that can cause a burning sensation in your mouth
When you eat fish, it becomes soaked in ammonia from your saliva. This happens because your body processes denature protein more readily in acidic environments, making them easier to digest.
When your saliva hits the dissolved proteins in your stomach, it turns into liquid weakly hydrogen chloride (HCl). HCI is actually stronger than Cl-, so some of the HCl ends up as hydrochloric acid in your gut.
This creates an environment not friendly to bacteria or fish eggs, which like to live near each other in your digestive system. The clumping together of these bacterial cells and egg fragments helps prevents fluid flow in your gastrointestinal tract, causing ulcers and inflammation.
A side effect of this process is an intense taste for capsaicin, the compound that makes chillies hot! Your brain also interprets this burn as pain, so even though the burn is mild, you feel enough discomfort to want to avoid spicy food.
Both fish and ammonia are compounds that cause a very strong taste
Our lips interpret these tastes, so we can experience both flavors separately.
However, our tongues also recognize many ingredients as having an ammonia-like flavor. In fact, most people will know about this flavor even if they’ve never tasted anything with it before. It’s what makes baby food smell so yucky — although, to be fair, maybe not as much as dog poop does!
This is because liquids containing ammonium ions (from e.g., urine) trigger a similar chemical response in your mouth. The difference between the two foods is that you ingest less of the ion involved in the “ammonia” taste.
You don’t really want to eat too much animal feed, but if you do, you try to swallow it without giving yourself diarrhea. This means staying hydrated, which helps neutralize the compound.
The taste associated with ammonia is what gives fish its unique flavor
In fact, this is how most people describe “fish” flavors — they smell or taste it in their noses
There are many different explanations for why we perceive ammonia when eating fish.
The first explanation might sound ridiculous to you — our sense of smell is able to detect ppm levels of ammonia in air.
However, there are no known receptors dedicated to detecting such low concentrations of this compound in your cheek cells.
Instead, your nose detects another chemical in trace amounts produced by your body called trimethylamine.
When you eat something that contains nitrogen, e.g., from muscle tissue of any sort, bacteria break down urea (a chemical derived from protein) present in the gut contents into ammonia.
Although you don’t produce much of it yourself, your nasal tracheae (the tube like passage connecting your nostrils to your throat) can pick up traces of ammonia.
Because it takes place naturally in your mouth and eyes, your tongue and nose are sensitive to ammonia before you ever put food in your mouth.
The taste of fish is what makes it taste like ammonia
When you eat fish, it can sometimes taste like nothing, or maybe just a little bit like salt. But often times when you put food in your mouth, something tastes bad. That thing is usually acidity – the kind that gives sour fruits and vegetables their flavor.
Acidity causes many things to have a “taste” but most importantly for our purposes, acidic foods can make your tongue and throat feel pain because the acids are drying out your tissue.
Many types of raw fish are very healthy for you; however, if you’re not used to eating them, you might want to start with broiled or grilled files so you can test their taste first.
For instance, try going in fresh to try some white fish such as halibut or salmon. You can also go for a slightly more vegetable-based file such as mackarel (a type of mackerel).
Finally, you may find that an aquarium tasting happens at a restaurant near you. This could be due to the fact they use a lot of chemicals to process these dishes and remove any possible contaminants.
Ammonia and acetone are both compounds that cause a strong, lingering taste
When you swallow food, your body produces acids to help digest foods.
The acids react with certain ingredients in the food you eat to form gas. Amines are chemicals that make up proteins (like muscle) as well as some fats.
When amino acids break down into ammonia, which happens when you stop eating, this is what causes your tastebuds to detect an acidic flavor.
Acids and gases can either dull or enhance the flavors of foods; depending on how much you have, your balance may be adjusted.
If there is too much acid or gas, your tongue will be able to tell. You’ll feel like you need to spit out all of the food you just ate.
Too little acid makes for sharp, vivid flavors and colors.
The burning sensation you feel is due to the acidity of the saliva
When we eat fish, it becomes covered in layers of mucus produced by our own secretions as well as that from the fish. Over time, the concentrated chemicals from the saliva begin breaking down the outer layer of skin on the fish, including the flesh.
The trapped fluids inside the body come into direct contact with the epithelium lining the walls of your mouth and pharynx . This causes the cells near the surface to collapse, which produces extreme pain. Saliva also contains enzymes such as cathepsin B, which break down proteins right in the tissue. Together, this research shows that an acidic environment forms around the fish within seconds after you take a bite.
This happens because when you eat food, its macronutrients (the molecules that provide energy) are broken down in your gut into acids called ketones. Ketone bodies are fatty acids without oxygen atoms attached like acetylcoenzyme A
The fish flavor is derived from the amino acid histidine
Histamine is a chemical that can contribute to symptoms in people who are allergic to it. When consumed, histamines are released into your bloodstream. In small amounts, like those found in trace amounts of food, this is not usually a problem. However, when large amounts of histamine are produced, diarrhea, stomach pain, and vomiting may occur.
Histamine was first discovered in 1891 by German chemist Lothar Meyer. It is made naturally by bacteria during fermentation.
In mammals, histamine acts as an intermediate product in immunoglobulin synthesis and is vital for the production of white blood cells. Excessive levels of histamine have been linked to inflammation, increased capillary permeability, tissue swelling, headache, and other effects.
Food sources of histamine include yeast, cheese, mackerel, shrimp, beef, pork, ham, turkey, and eggs. Meat contains some fermented proteins (such as rennet), and carbohydrates help make bread inflamed as well. Even vegetables contain minor amounts of certain enzymes that break down proteins, such as chymotrypsin. Enzymes are chemicals that promote cellular respiration or energy release.
Amino acids are the chemical building blocks of proteins
While cooking, you may have come across the word “volatile”. This refers to any substance that is made into gases under pressure or at high temperatures like in a fire.
Volatiles are often used as ingredients in cookbooks. They can be easily vaporized without much effort or time. Cooking quickly makes them less detectable by keeping their concentration low.
Aldehydes and ketones are common volatiles found in foods. They contribute flavor but only if consumed. At very high doses, they can cause health issues. Of course, ammonia is also a gas, but when ingested it turns out not to be volatile.
For some reason, people think that eating small amounts of liquid ammonia will give you a pleasant taste sensation. However, this behavior is considered illogical and irrational because higher concentrations of ammonia produce a bad smell and corrosive effects on tissues.
Ammonia toxicity affects many organs in your body including your liver, lungs, and kidneys. Repeated exposure to elevated levels of ammonia can even trigger memory loss due to astrocyte damage.