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Why Does Wasabi Burn? The Science Behind the Burn

Chef making fresh wasabi

With every order of sushi usually comes that tiny green ball of “wasabi” to add a little slap of heat to each bite. What you might not know is, although the restaurant serving up that tiny ball of green stuff maybe calling it wasabi, it usually is a mixture of horse radish, mustard, and green dye. Real wasabi is awfully expensive and is used more frequently at expensive fine dining sushi restaurants.

No matter, whether you are eating the real thing, or the horseradish substitute, if you add just a bit too much, it freaking burns and stings! It burns mostly your nose but also the mouth, tongue, and some feel stinging sensations on their scalps.

Ever wonder why? We got you covered, keep reading to learn why wasabi burns and more!

What causes the wasabi burn?

The reason wasabi burns is because it contains large quantities of allyl isothiocyanate. Allyl isothiocyanate is a volatile, colorless to pale yellow oil that causes the burning sensation one experiences after consuming wasabi, horseradish, and mustard.

Its burning effects dissipate quickly since it does not bind as tightly to receptors in the body as other spicy compounds like capsaicin do. The burning effect is a defense mechanism in the plants to prevent animals eating them.

Why does wasabi burn the nose?

Wasabi burns the nose because allyl isothiocyanate is a volatile compound which vaporizes. These spicy vapors make their way from your mouth to your throat and up into your nasal cavities. This is why the burn from eating wasabi is delayed and sneaks up on you. It takes time for the vapors to work their way from your mouth up into your nasal cavity. Once in your nasal cavity, the compound stimulates receptors which sends pain signals to your brain via the nervous system.

Why does wasabi burn the brain?

Wasabi does not actually burn or sting the brain because the brain does not possess any pain receptors. The stinging, burning sensation in the brain some describe is really in the nasal cavity whose network goes beyond just the nose.

Sometimes the wasabi burn that folks describe happening in the brain is really a tingling sensation on the scalp from the local nervous system getting an extra jolt from the allyl isothiocyanate.

Why does wasabi burn the throat?

Wasabi burns the throat because there are receptors in the throat region which are stimulated by wasabi’s compound allyl isothiocyanate. Due to the volatility of the compound and its water solubility the burn is short-lived in the throat compared to other spicy compounds like capsaicin in chili peppers which are fat soluble. This is why the burning sensation you get from eating a substance like capsaicin often lasts longer than the burning sensation you get from eating wasabi.

Why does wasabi burn the mouth and tongue?

After consuming wasabi, many will note a spicy, burning sensation in the mouth and tongue area. The burning sensation is from the allyl isothiocyanate stimulating receptor in the area. If your mouth or tongue are burning from consuming too much wasabi, drink a glass of water, it will wash the spicy compounds away quickly.

Why does wasabi cause heartburn?

Some folks will experience heartburn after consuming wasabi. This is because some people have digestive sensitivities to foods that cause irritations to the nose and throat region. This irritation can cause acid reflux, which is the same as heartburn.

It is hard to know what will and will not trigger acid reflux in individuals. If you are currently experiencing indigestion, acid reflux, or sensitivity to spicy foods, hold off on consuming wasabi until your digestive system settles down a bit.

Why does my scalp tingle when eating wasabi?

The most intense sensation one usually feels after consuming wasabi is burning in the nose and nasal cavity region, but some also notice a tingling sensation in the scalp. The active compound in wasabi allyl isothiocyanate can cause stimulation in the broader nervous system, this simulation in some individuals can result in a prickling or tingling sensation in the scalp.

The best way I can describe the sensation is it feels somewhat like using a shampoo that has menthol in it: it is a light tingling sensation on the skin. It almost feels like slight electrical waves moving about the surface of the skin.

Can you build a tolerance for the wasabi burn?

Like other chemical compounds that stimulate receptors in the human body, the more they are stimulated the more of that compound they need to elicit the same response. So, if you consume a lot of wasabi you will begin to develop a tolerance to it. Once a tolerance is established, consuming the same amount will cause a reaction, but the reaction will feel less intense unless the amount consumed is increased.

Many folks never develop a substantial tolerance to wasabi like they may with other spicy foods. This is because wasabi’s spicy compound, allyl isothiocyanate, is not as common or consumed as frequently as other spicy compounds like capsaicin.

Think about it, when was the last time you had wasabi, spicy mustard, or horse radish? Maybe a week, a month, or was it a year ago?

Other spicy compounds like capsaicin are present in a larger variety of foods consumed more often. You can find capsaicin in hot sauces, salsas, and chili peppers.

I personally consume foods that have capsaicin almost every meal of every day compared to foods with allyl isothiocyanate which I might consume once a week.

So, my tolerance for capsaicin is far greater than wasabi (or really, allyl isothiocyanate).

Can consuming too much wasabi kill you?

There is no scientific research supporting the theory that eating too much wasabi will kill a human. Some speculate death by wasabi is possible because at a high enough level allyl isothiocyanate is toxic in animals. Therefore, some assume the deadly effects animals experience from overdosing on the compounds present in wasabi will have the same deadly results in humans.

Most likely if one were to consume too much wasabi, they will initially experience extreme pain in the sinus region and mouth. Later, they would probably experience digestive and possible respiratory issues.

Wasabi vs horseradish: is the burn the same?

Wasabi and horseradish both have the same burning sensation in the nostrils after consumption. The stinging, burning sensation is the same because both possess the active chemical compound allyl isothiocyanate. The difference between wasabi and horseradish is the amount of the compound present. Wasabi is known for having higher levels of allyl isothiocyanate per serving than horseradish.

Wasabi vs chili peppers: is the burn the same?

Wasabi and chili peppers have different burning sensations. Wasabi tends to have a more intense burning stinging sensation in the nose and upper throat and often disappears fairly quickly. Chili peppers tend to burn more on the tongue, mouth, and throat, and depending on the type of pepper, the burn might stay on your tongue for quite some time.

The reason why the burning sensations are different is because the active chemical compound in wasabi, allyl isothiocyanate, is volatile and water soluble. This means the compound vaporizes moving from the mouth to the throat and ultimately to the nasal cavity, causing the nostril to burn. The burning sensation from wasabi in the mouth and tongue region is short lived because the saliva washes away its active compound when an individual swallows because it is water soluble.

Chili peppers on the other hand have intense burning that tends to linger in the mouth, tongue, and throat region. The active compound in chili peppers, capsaicin, is fat soluble and more stable than allyl isothiocyanate. The stability of the compound means that it does not create as many vapors and therefore doesn’t sting the nasal cavities. The fat solubility of capsaicin means saliva or water is not an effective means of washing away its burning effects. This is why it is better to consume full fat milk or yogurt when trying to quench the raging inferno your mouth caused by eating super-hot chili peppers.

How to eat wasabi without experiencing the burn? 9 tips that can work

  1. Proper portioning – when eating wasabi, it is important to start with small portions and work your way up. There is a tipping point when eating wasabi, one morsel too much and your sinuses flair up with the intense burn. So, start small and work your way up to the edge.
  2. Breathing techniques – Since the wasabi burn is caused by vapors hitting your sinus receptors, changing your breathing before consuming can mitigate the stinging sensation. Before consuming the wasabi, exhale fully, eat the wasabi, swallow, then breath in through the nose. Using this technique should prevent the vapor buildup that leads to the nostril burn. Just be careful not to choke when altering your breathing patterns when eating!
  3. Clear the palate with a fizzy beverage – Many find taking a few swigs of a bubbly beverage like soda helps quickly remove the stinging vapors.
  4. Dairy – Dairy, specifically the fats in dairy, are well known to help reduce the burn of many spicy foods. Consuming some full-fat dairy products after eating wasabi can help wash away the burn. Since the active compound in wasabi is water soluble, water will be just as effective.
  5. Mix with soy sauce – Diluting wasabi by mixing it with some soy sauce helps moderate the amount of wasabi you get with every bite.
  6. Build a tolerance – Like many other spicy foods, eating more wasabi will help you become more accustom to its burning sensation.
  7. Mind over mater – When eating wasabi, mentally prepare yourself for the burn. If you expect the burn it loses some of its severity because it does not take you by surprise.
  8. Sweet vinegar to the rescue – If you consume a bit too much wasabi, many people say taking a few swigs of apple cider vinegar helps remove the burning sensation.
  9. Water – That’s right, hydrate, and drink water. Wasabi’s spicy compounds are different than other spicy foods: they are more volatile and water soluble. So, if you are feeling a burning sensation in your mouth or tongue from the wasabi, drink water and it will wash the active compounds, and the burn, away.