Hold onto your hat and pile on the wasabi—new research indicates that it may be good for your health. Used for centuries by the Japanese on raw fish as a tasty antimicrobial, recent studies suggest that the incendiary green paste may help prevent blood clots, asthma, tooth decay and even cancer.
As a member of the Brassicaceae family, wasabi contains the same cancer-fighting phytochemicals (glucosinolates and isothiocyanates) found in cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kale. Isothiocyanates, chemical compounds that plants rely on to protect them in the wild, are what give wasabi its distinctive smell and hot taste. They are also responsible for wasabi’s anti-aggregate and antihistamine qualities. Perhaps most important, isothiocyanates boost the body’s own elaborate antioxidant systems, including what are known as Phase II detoxification enzymes.
Phase II enzymes neutralize highly reactive, dangerous forms of cancer-causing chemicals before they can damage DNA. Paul Talalay, M.D., professor of pharmacology and molecular sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says, “Raising the levels of Phase II enzymes can offer a highly effective way to achieve protection against carcinogenesis.”
In a recent study from Japan, a team from Ochanomizu University found that the isothiocyanates in wasabi induced Phase II enzymes 1.9 times more effectively than the sulforaphane found in broccoli.
As its Latin name Wasabia japonica suggests, the plant is native to Japan. An evergreen perennial that grows to about 18 inches high, wasabi produces leaves on long stems from the crown of the plant. As the plant grows, the leaves fall off at the stem base to form a rhizome. It’s this part of the plant that is grated and used in Japanese cuisine.
Hideki Masuda, Ph.D., has discovered another use for it. Last December, at the International Chemical Congress of Pacific Basin Societies in Hawaii, Masuda reported that wasabi is capable of killing Streptococcus mutans, one of the primary bacteria responsible for causing tooth decay. In Masuda’s lab experiments, high concentrations of wasabi interfered with the bacteria’s ability to stick to the teeth. Masuda says that clinical research will be needed to confirm wasabi’s plaque-pouncing powers.
If you’ve tasted it, you know that a little wasabi goes a long, long way. Will we really see the day when we brush our teeth with it?
“If it is effective in humans, we can expect to see a wide range of applications, including wasabi toothpaste,” Masuda says. “But we might need to add something to mask the pungent taste.”
At Pacific Farms in Florence, Oregon, Roy Carver III grows wasabi in water, mimicking its native growing habitat of Japanese mountain streams. Carver ships a good bit of wasabi back to Japan. But sales in this country have risen in the past few years, due to American interest in Asian cooking and a liking for the rhizome’s pungent taste. Now customers are beginning to buy it for health reasons, too.
“With a long list of scientific studies showing its health benefits,” Carver says, “wasabi isn’t just for sushi anymore.”
Nancy Allison is a freelance writer in Germany.