Have you ever wondered why wasabi is spicy? Maybe you think it’s because of the capsaicin… Well, you’re mistaken.
Does wasabi have capsaicin? No, wasabi has no capsaicin. Instead, it’s spicy because of a substance called allyl isothiocyanate (AITC), which is also found in mustard, horseradish, and broccoli. It also makes the flavor milder, and the overall burning sensation is shorter compared to capsaicin.
Read on if you want to learn more about capsaicin and wasabi!
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Does wasabi contain capsaicin?
No, wasabi doesn’t contain capsaicin. So what is it that gives the root its signature pungent flavor? That would be a compound called allyl isothiocyanate.
Allyl isothiocyanate (AITC), also known as mustard oil, has a distinctive odor and can be found in both wasabi and horseradish. Many people are surprised to learn it’s even more potent than capsaicin because its effect on the human body is more intense and immediate.
Experts say AITC is so volatile that if you lower your head when eating wasabi—or put your face close to the grater—it can cause irritation of your nose and tear ducts, making your eyes water or feel like they’re burning!
However, some believe this has less to do with the potency of AITC than with how rapidly it dissipates from food.
Both fresh wasabi and fresh horseradish have a very short window of maximum pungency: approximately 15 minutes after being grated or ground, AITC loses most of its heat by evaporation.
Why is wasabi spicy without capsaicin?
Whether you’re eating wasabi by itself or in a sushi roll, your body reacts to it in the exact same way as it does when it encounters capsaicin. The chemical compound allyl isothiocyanate, made when you grind up fresh wasabi root, is similar to capsaicin because they’re both isothiocyanates.
They’re not the same thing at all, though—and that’s why you don’t feel like you could die when you eat wasabi.
When sinigrin and glucosinolate (both found in wasabi) break down, mustard oil and methanethiol are created. We can thank these two compounds for the spicy heat we feel from raw wasabi—it peaks shortly after consumption but fades within 10 minutes or so.
What is the spicy compound in wasabi?
The spicy compound in wasabi is a chemical called allyl isothiocyanate. This chemical comes from the breakdown of sinigrin, which you can find in many plants that are part of the mustard family. Sinigrin breaks down when you chew wasabi, and you get this special chemical as a result.
Allyl isothiocyanate has a similar structure to capsaicin—but it’s not exactly the same.
The difference between these two compounds lies in how their molecular structures absorb light energy (which we perceive as color).
The molecular structure of allyl isothiocyanate absorbs violet light more strongly than any other color, resulting in a yellowish-green color over white surfaces like snow or paper.
In contrast, capsaicin absorbs yellow light more strongly than any other color—creating an orange or red appearance over white surfaces.
Does wasabi build spice tolerance?
When you eat foods with a lot of capsaicin, like habaneros and ghost peppers, your body creates a receptor that blocks the substance from penetrating further into your mouth. It’s part of why you can get used to spicy foods over time: Your brain starts sending signals to block or otherwise counteract the burn.
When you eat too much wasabi, the same thing happens: Your body recognizes the heat as an irritant and tries to protect itself by creating these receptors. But because wasabi isn’t actually that spicy compared to other sources of capsaicin, it’ll take some time for your tongue to adapt enough for this to make any meaningful difference in your spice tolerance.
Why does wasabi taste like chemicals sometimes?
When you eat wasabi, it sometimes tastes like chemicals. This is because wasabi contains a chemical called sinigrin, which is found in mustard and horseradish. When the sinigrin in your wasabi comes into contact with the water in your mouth, it converts into allyl isothiocyanate (AITC). Allyl isothiocyanate is also found in mustard and horseradish.
When AITC comes into contact with your mucous membranes, it triggers a pain response from the pain receptors there. This causes you to feel the familiar burning sensation in your nose and eyes when eating spicy foods like wasabi or hot sauce. It’s pretty cool that AITC does this—it’s how spicy plants defend themselves from pests!
So, to recap: Wasabi is remarkably different from the other hot peppers on the market. Instead of capsaicin, wasabi has allyl isothiocyanate, which makes it spicy. Interestingly, this chemical compound is volatile and changes over time. So if you’ve ever wondered why your wasabi-laden sushi tasted spicier on one occasion than it did on another, that’s why.
Image credits – Canva