The Spicy Showdown: Wasabi vs. Peppers - Exploring the Science Behind the Heat

Kaylee Everhart

Updated Wednesday, January 10, 2024 at 11:43 PM CDT

The Spicy Showdown: Wasabi vs. Peppers - Exploring the Science Behind the Heat

Understanding the Compounds that Make Wasabi and Peppers Spicy

Wasabi and peppers are two popular ingredients known for their fiery kick. But have you ever wondered what exactly makes them spicy? It all comes down to the unique compounds found in these two ingredients. Wasabi contains allyl isothiocyanate, while peppers contain capsaicin.

When it comes to the spiciness of wasabi, the compound responsible is more volatile. This means that it evaporates quickly. When you consume wasabi, the heat from your body causes the spicy chemical to turn into a gas. This gas then travels up your sinuses, resulting in that distinctive burning sensation.

On the other hand, the compound in peppers, capsaicin, is oil-based and less volatile. As a result, it sticks to the insides of your mouth, leading to the spice being felt primarily on your tongue and lips. The burning sensation in your sinuses when consuming peppers is actually the body's way of trying to purge the irritant from your throat.

Interestingly, most of the wasabi found in North America is not true wasabi but colored horseradish. True wasabi can be found in Asian markets or Chinatown shops, although it may require some hunting. In fact, some local cheese making firms even use local wasabi leaves in their cheese, while the root is sent to Vancouver and sold to the Asian population there. The hunt for true wasabi is considered worth it by some due to its unique flavor and the experience it provides.

It's worth noting that wasabi and horseradish share similar spicy compounds, with allyl isothiocyanate being the main component in both. In fact, volatile liquids with low boiling points, such as gasoline and nail polish remover, share similarities with allyl isothiocyanate in terms of their evaporation properties.

The volatile nature of allyl isothiocyanate is what allows the spice of wasabi to reach your sinuses, resulting in that intense sensation. On the other hand, the stickiness of oil-based capsaicin in peppers causes the spice to be felt more on the tongue and lips. The body's response to capsaicin is to try to remove it as an irritant from the throat, which leads to the spice being felt in the sinuses.

the compounds that make wasabi and peppers spicy, allyl isothiocyanate and capsaicin respectively, have different properties that contribute to the unique sensations they provide. Whether you're a fan of the sinus-clearing experience of wasabi or the tongue-tingling spice of peppers, these ingredients continue to captivate our taste buds and add a fiery kick to our favorite dishes.

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