If you’ve ever had the privilege of having your sinuses cleared by horseradish or wasabi, you know what’s up. And if you haven’t, why not? Pitter patter! The telltale feeling of eyes tearing up. Smelling everything with new awareness. Wondering if it’ll ever stop.

(pro tip: it will. I promise. just keep breathing. and crying. but mostly breathing.)

Except, why does it burn a hole through the recesses behind your schnoz and up into the brain the way it does and somehow not leave a fiery trail all over your tongue? It’s like the opposite of the Slurpee Effect: instead of Brain Freeze, it’s Brain Burn. And not as sweet. Or sweet at all. Actually, it really is the opposite of Brain Freeze. I’m not sure 7-Eleven would be able to market it as such but they’re creative. I have every faith in their capabilities.

Where was I? Oh yeah! The horseradish and wasabi effect on the nose and brain pan.

We know that that’s what it does. Most of us have experienced it. But back to the question of WHY? The good news is that there is an actual scientific reason for the burn and the efflux of sinusoidal effluent into the nearest handy tissue. Let’s get real deep into the subject and then climb out a bit higher to more practical applications. And of course, maybe discover why on earth would we do this to ourselves. Outside of general love of pain.

Seriously. When your food brings you to the bring of weeping and gnashing of teeth and then you take another bite, what does that say about you? Or me for that matter…

Talk Nerdy to Me

(For anyone who is listening to the audio version of this entry, I hope you enjoy listening to me attempt to pronounce some of the upcoming scientific things that might not make any sense at all whatsoever. This should be a good time. Medical narration is definitely easier than this stuff!)

The organosulfer compound that is responsible for the rather unique – and sometimes painful – taste of wasabi, horseradish, radishes, as well as mustard is called Allyl isothiocyanate. Hereafter referred to as AITC in short. Because I’m both lazy and try to avoid tongue twisters as often as possible unless warming up for voicing things. Which, if you’re listening to the audio version of this entry, I have already done. Doubling up on the warmup sounds too much like work and I have this allergy…


Technical Terms that make up horseradish and wasabi

The lachrymatory effect of the unique pungency of this organosulfer compound – creation of tears – is felt through two ion channels:

  • The transient receptor potential cation channel, subfamily A, member 1. This is referred to as TRPA1. It is also literally referred to as The Wasabi Receptor. Like, can it get any more direct than that?
  • The transient receptor potential cation channel, subfamily V, member 1. This is referred to as TrpV1.

AITC is something that, in nature, acts as a defense against herbivores who might want to gnosh on things that may not exactly want to be gnoshed upon. An animal chewing on a plant with this compound present will be repelled by the release of the taste and smell and run away as fast as its little legs can carry it. Fire ants in particular are repelled by this compound.

Remind me to ditch the ant traps that we get at the store and just grate some horseradish onto the floor. Done and done.

Deliberate extraction and uses

As with most things found in nature, we do our best to try and extract them and bend them to our will as a race. It’s what we do. Chemistry is pretty cool and the alchemists in our society are ALSO pretty cool. So stuff like this comes up. In this case, it can be extracted from the seeds of Black or Brown Indian Mustard.

It can ALSO be artificially manufactured by combining Allyl Chloride and Potassium thiocyanate. Because of course it can. The combination of those two things will give what is frequently referred to as synthetic mustard oil. It can also be acquired through the distillation of mustard seeds which brings volatile oil of mustard. Volatility is key to a good flavor, right? While it can be used as a flavoring agent in foods, it is also used as an insecticide, anti-mold agent, bacteriocide, and for crop protection.

And I was today years old when I learned that it is used in fire alarms for the deaf. Huh!

ALSO! Because all of the above wasn’t cool enough already. AITC apparently has some benefit for cancer prevention. Wait. What?

I’m going to let the article linked speak for itself but please, by all means, insert the brain explosion emoji here.

I don’t think this means we can start having horseradish in every meal and expect that cancer is going to bypass us. But wouldn’t that be something…

Continued research, however, is being poured into the idea that this compound can have a positive effect on ailments such as arthritis, inflammation, and other chronic pain conditions. Absolutely wild and fascinating stuff, isn’t it?

So with all of the jargon above, it doesn’t answer the question of why it does this. Let’s dig deeper.

Why do horseradish and wasabi do what it do

We’re back to the question of why does it burn the way it does without the tongue even batting an eyelash. Part of the reason is because of the nature of the way the compound dissipates. When the crushification of the compound and plant happens, the interaction with oxygen is what causes all of the craziness to start happening. Without oxygen, pretty much nothing would happen. The vapors that are released travel through the back of the mouth and up into the sinuses. And brain, of course. Of course the eyes by proxy. Oxygen is the key to making that reaction happen.

The other part is the fact that tongues don’t have eyelashes. Sheesh. And even if the tongue did have eyelashes, you know they’d never be fully on fleek. The environment is too moist – yes, I used that word – and getting the implements in there would require too much effort. Allergies and all. Don’t look at me; I don’t makeup the rules, I just follow them.

So effectively, the vapors when interacting with oxygen are the source of the pain that we all know and love. This doesn’t really linger on the tongue in the same way that hot peppers would, thus creating a completely different sensation.

Pretty sure drinking milk won’t help you with the horseradish wasabi connection either!

Why do we enjoy the horseradish and wasabi experience?

So hang on a second.

This hurts. Pain and all that. So why do we keep coming back for more? What is it about Wasabi that makes us keep coming back for more? Why does a good horseradish cream sauce taste so delicious with some beer brats?

(that’s a trick question, beer brats are already delicious. apologies to any vegan readers, please continue on and ignore the previous comments)

Historical precedence

It’s not like this is a new thing, either. Mention of horseradish goes back as far as Greek mythology; Apollo was told by the Delphic Oracle that it is worth its weight in gold.

Wasabi was once thought to have its use originated in the early 1800s but recorded history can trace it all the way back to the 8th century.

The burn isn’t new!

Back to the original question: WHY??

The best answer that I am able to find is that things like wasabi and horseradish add depth of taste to the flavor experience of whatever is being consumed. For the same reason that people love to add ghost peppers, sriracha, or Dave’s Insanity Sauce to their foods, their added sensation to an existing food can change the flavor profile in a way that is different and potentially interesting. Is this going to work for everyone? Probably not. You couldn’t pay me enough money to get within ten feet of a ghost pepper, for example.

From a statistical standpoint, 51% of large populations interviewed would indicate that they like the horseradish wasabi experience. Which means there’s another half that can’t stand it.

Probably like beer. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste but for some the learning curve is pretty steep. Full disclosure: the learning curve for beer was almost too steep for me. The jury is still out on that one.

If you are among the half of people who simply cannot stand the taste of either of those things – no matter how small the quantity – chances are you’re not going to suddenly develop a taste for it. Statistically speaking, at least.

Conclusionary Statement of Finality

We’ve established that horseradish and wasabi are quite potent. For the question of why it does what it does: exposure to oxygen will cause the compound to vapor through sinuses and cause animals to run away and humans to …. not.

It doesn’t typically leave a film on the tongue like other traditional hot peppers might. Even without adherence to the taste receptors, it can still enhance flavors for those folks who are into that kind of thing (me included).

If you’ve never tried it before reading this post and are interested, I strongly recommend starting slow. Find a good horseradish sauce and try it out – I’m a big fan of Inglehoffer’s offering – and use some sparingly on a prime rib, bratwurst, or lentil cakes for the vegans. Wasabi is frequently paired with sushi and again: go for it! Just sparingly at first. Experience the effect minimally at first and then work your way up to total efflorescence as you see fit.

You will never know if you like it if you don’t try. It’s not like sky diving or anything; there’s no danger! Well. Not much danger. Umm. Report back if you try it and let me know whether or not I owe you apologies!

Until next week,

-= george =-



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About the Author

Straddling the line between the arts - voiceover, music composition, session performer, album mixing - and the world of durable medical equipment. Probably should have spent more time playing on the balance beam as a kid instead of obsessing over Commodore 64 games.

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