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Wasabi vs. Chili Peppers

October 16, 2007

A listener asks: Why does wasabi’s kick disappear so quickly while the heat of chili peppers can last for much longer?

Transcript

BOB HIRSHON (host):
Whassup with wasabi? I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

If you eat sushi, most likely you’ve braved the searing hot taste of wasabi, the bright green condiment that’s served along with the popular Japanese snack. If so, you also know that wasabi’s kick lasts only a few seconds. In contrast, the heat of chili peppers can burn your mouth for many minutes. We asked neuroscientist Diana Bautista of the University of California at San Francisco for an explanation. She says that while wasabi contains compounds that are volatile and break down quickly in the mouth…

DIANA BAUTISTA (University of California at San Francisco):
…chili peppers contain more fat soluble compounds that easily penetrate the cells of the tongue and activate more pain receptors than wasabi does. So that creates a longer lasting, painful burning sensation.

HIRSHON:
If you have a burning science question, call us a 1-800-why-isit. If we use your question, you’ll win a Science Update Mug. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.