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What is wasabi? These are some of the best reasons to eat more of it

Content reviewed by Donna Gates
Written by Body Ecology on December 18th, 2020

There’s a reason sushi and sashimi (raw fish) are eaten with soy sauce and wasabi. This bright green, spicy garnish contains a powerful antimicrobial, which can help protect against potentially pathogenic bacteria that can cause food poisoning from, say, raw fish and raw or undercooked meat. What else is wasabi good for, and how can you include it more regularly in your diet, whether in food or as a wasabi supplement?

Let’s take a look.

What is wasabi? It’s chock-full of health-promoting compounds

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Your liver is working hard — all day, every day — and decongesting ingredients can provide outside help. In LivAmend, our popular liver-supporting wasabi supplement, you’ll find specialized ingredients your body can use to assist your liver, like artichoke, sarsaparilla, and milk thistle extracts and highly concentrated wasabi powder.

Commonly known as Japanese horseradish, wasabi is a member of the mustard family — hence, its spiciness. Wasabi is native to Japan but also grows in New Zealand, Taiwan, and even North America, wherever it can find shady, humid places to live. The roots of this cruciferous plant are the parts used to make strong, spicy sauces and condiments, including the green blob served alongside sushi at restaurants.

Because genuine wasabi is quite difficult to cultivate, most of the stuff on store shelves is actually a mixture of common horseradish, mustard, cornstarch, and green dyes.

Wasabi has been touted as a remedy for all kinds of ailments:

  • It’s been historically taken by mouth as an antibacterial, anticancer, and anti-inflammatory agent.
  • Likewise, it’s been used to help reduce blood stickiness and clotting and to stimulate bone growth.
  • Not all of these purported benefits have been supported by scientific study, however.

One thing that does seem certain is that wasabi has antimicrobial properties.

As with turmeric and other spices traditionally eaten alongside potentially unsafe animal-derived foods, wasabi is eaten with raw fish not only to add flavor but also to reduce the risk of food poisoning. In fact, wasabi is sometimes used as a preservative in lunch bags in Japan.

The compound in wasabi that seems to be responsible for this antimicrobial activity is called 6-methylsulfinylhexyl isothiocyanate and appears to be especially effective against E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus.1 It may also prove potent against Salmonella, a common contaminant of raw fish and meat. And there’s also research underway to investigate the use of this compound in wasabi as a way to inhibit Streptococcus mutans, a pathogen that sticks to teeth and causes tooth decay.

(It’s probably best not to brush your teeth with wasabi paste, though! Even a little bit is very hot.)

Isothiocyanates are a group of naturally occurring sulfur compounds found in many cruciferous vegetables, including wasabi. These compounds are stored as glucosinolate precursors in the plants, such as 6-methylsulfinylhexyl isothiocyanate (6-MSITC), and the act of chopping or chewing a plant changes the chemical nature of the compound, effectively activating it. Cooking it, however, inactivates an enzyme called myrosinase, which combines with the glucosinolate to produce a very important anti-aging molecule called sulforaphane.

There is a strategy to get the benefits of raw cruciferous vegetables in cooked form. In raw broccoli, the sulforaphane precursor, called glucoraphanin, mixes with the enzyme myrosinase when you chew or chop it. If given enough time — such as when sitting in your upper stomach, waiting to get digested — sulforaphane is born. The precursor and sulforaphane are resistant to heat and, therefore, cooking, but the enzyme is destroyed. No enzyme means no sulforaphane.

With the “hack and hold” technique, you chop the broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, collards, cauliflower, or wasabi first and wait 40 minutes. Then, you can cook all you want. The sulforaphane is already made; the enzyme has already done its job, so you don’t need it any longer.

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Even more reasons to eat wasabi: Cancer, digestion & brain function

Along with its powerful antimicrobial effects, wasabi also offers support for a wide range of health issues:

Cancer and inflammation.

6-MSITC has been seen in numerous studies to demonstrate biological properties, such as anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antiplatelet, and anticancer activity. The compound strongly suppresses the pro-inflammatory mediators cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2), inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS), and cytokines and blocks their expression.2

And, wasabi may have a role to play in cancer prevention:

  • Some research suggests it can interfere with the growth of stomach cancer cells and even kill these cancer cells.3
  • 6-MSITC has shown peroxidase activity and superoxide scavenging potential, which means it helps reduce the risk of free radical and oxidative damage that can cause cellular mutations and cancer.4

Isothiocyanates in wasabi have also been found to have specific antimutagenic activity against acrylamide, a well-known mutagen (carcinogen) in broiled fish and meat, and against a strong mutagen in chlorine-disinfected tap water.5,6

Digestion and weight management.

Wasabi may support digestive health in an unexpected way as it appears to inhibit the growth and activity of Helicobacter pylori.7 This bacterium causes peptic ulcers and can contribute to inflammation and cancer of the stomach lining; wasabi appears to help address peptic ulcers caused by H. pylori.8,9

Wasabi may even promote healthy weight management:

  • That’s because the spice contains compounds that can suppress the growth of fat cells.10 The same compound is also found in cabbage and mustard.
  • This compound, 5-Hydroxyferulic acid methyl ester (5-HFA ester), inhibited the formation and growth of fat cells in mice by turning off certain genes, including suppressing the expression of GLUT4, LPL, SREBP-1c, ACC, and FAS.11

In another mouse study, wasabi helped prevent weight gain when the mice were fed a high-fat, high-calorie diet.12

Bones and brain.

Your bones might also benefit from wasabi. The spice contains p-hydroxycinnamic acid (HCA), which can enhance bone formation and decrease bone breakdown.13 Research in humans is lacking, however, so don’t prioritize wasabi over a good intake of beneficial bone nutrients, like calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin K.

Finally, while wasabi can certainly clear your nasal passages and give you a wake-up call, it’s good for your brain in other ways:

  • Those isothiocyanates may have neuroprotective effects, meaning they help protect the neurons (cells) in your brain.
  • In mice, these compounds enhance antioxidant activity that helps reduce inflammation in the brain.14,15

Other research suggests that by driving down inflammation in the brain, isothiocyanates may help slow down the progression of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease.16

How to eat wasabi to maximize its health effects

It’s important to note that the studies mentioned above all used wasabi extracts, rather than wasabi as a spice or condiment. As such, it’s hard to tell if you’d get the same benefits by simply eating a little bit of wasabi each day.

And, unfortunately, because genuine wasabi is quite difficult to cultivate, most of the stuff on store shelves is actually a mixture of common horseradish, mustard, cornstarch, and green dyes. These dyes can cause allergic reactions and are definitely not going to support detoxification.

So, if you’re looking to enjoy the health benefits of wasabi, make sure to get the real thing:

  • To include wasabi in your diet, do as the Japanese do and eat it with wheat-free tamari and enjoy it with sashimi and sushi.
  • Add a dash to noodle soups; use it in salad dressings, marinades, and dips; toss it with roasted vegetables; or serve alongside grilled meats and vegetables as a condiment.

If you aren’t interested in searing your taste buds every day, consider a wasabi supplement, like LivAmend, which features liver-supportive wasabi extract, as well as artichoke, sarsaparilla, and milk thistle extracts, all in one convenient capsule. We recommend taking 3 capsules with each meal to increase bile flow from the liver.

REFERENCES:

  1. 1. Lu Z, Dockery CR, Crosby M, Chavarria K, Patterson B, Giedd M. Antibacterial Activities of Wasabi against Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Staphylococcus aureus. Front Microbiol. 2016 Sep 21;7:1403. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2016.01403. PMID: 27708622; PMCID: PMC5030237.
  2. 2. Uto T, Hou DX, Morinaga O, Shoyama Y. Molecular Mechanisms Underlying Anti-Inflammatory Actions of 6-(Methylsulfinyl)hexyl Isothiocyanate Derived from Wasabi (Wasabia japonica). Adv Pharmacol Sci. 2012;2012:614046. doi:10.1155/2012/614046.
  3. 3. Tanida N, Kawaura A, Takahashi A, Sawada K, Shimoyama T. Suppressive effect of wasabi (pungent Japanese spice) on gastric carcinogenesis induced by MNNG in rats. Nutr Cancer. 1991;16(1):53-8. doi: 10.1080/01635589109514140. PMID: 1923907.
  4. 4. Yamada-Kato, Tomoe & Okunishi, Isao & Fukamatsu, Yosuke & Yoshida, Yusuke. (2017). Inhibitory Effects of 6-Methylsulfinylhexyl Isothiocyanate on Superoxide Anion Generation from Differentiated HL-60 Human Promyelocytic Leukemia Cells. Food Science and Technology Research. 23. 343-348. 10.3136/fstr.23.343.
  5. 5. Shimamura Y, Iio M, Urahira T, Masuda S. Inhibitory effects of Japanese horseradish (Wasabia japonica) on the formation and genotoxicity of a potent carcinogen, acrylamide. J Sci Food Agric. 2017 Jun;97(8):2419-2425. doi: 10.1002/jsfa.8055. Epub 2016 Oct 24. PMID: 27670634.
  6. 6. Kinae N, Masuda H, Shin IS, Furugori M, Shimoi K. Functional properties of wasabi and horseradish. Biofactors. 2000;13(1-4):265-9. doi: 10.1002/biof.5520130140. PMID: 11237192.
  7. 7. Masuda S, Masuda H, Shimamura Y, Sugiyama C, Takabayashi F. Improvement Effects of Wasabi (Wasabiajaponica) Leaves and Allyl Isothiocyanate on Stomach Lesions of Mongolian Gerbils Infected with Helicobacter pylori. Nat Prod Commun. 2017 Apr;12(4):595-598. PMID: 30520603.
  8. 8. Sekiguchi H, Takabayashi F, Deguchi Y, Masuda H, Toyoizumi T, Masuda S, Kinae N. Leaf extract of Wasabia japonica relieved oxidative stress induced by Helicobacter pylori infection and stress loading in Mongolian gerbils. Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2010;74(6):1194-9. doi: 10.1271/bbb.90919. Epub 2010 Jun 7. PMID: 20530903.
  9. 9. Masuda S, Masuda H, Shimamura Y, Sugiyama C, Takabayashi F. Improvement Effects of Wasabi (Wasabiajaponica) Leaves and Allyl Isothiocyanate on Stomach Lesions of Mongolian Gerbils Infected with Helicobacter pylori. Nat Prod Commun. 2017 Apr;12(4):595-598. PMID: 30520603.
  10. 10. Kim YJ, Lee DH, Ahn J, Chung WJ, Jang YJ, Seong KS, Moon JH, Ha TY, Jung CH. Pharmacokinetics, Tissue Distribution, and Anti-Lipogenic/Adipogenic Effects of Allyl-Isothiocyanate Metabolites. PLoS One. 2015 Aug 28;10(8):e0132151. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0132151. PMID: 26317351; PMCID: PMC4552636.
  11. 11. Misawa N, Hosoya T, Yoshida S, Sugimoto O, Yamada-Kato T, Kumazawa S. 5-Hydroxyferulic acid methyl ester isolated from wasabi leaves inhibits 3T3-L1 adipocyte differentiation. Phytother Res. 2018 Jul;32(7):1304-1310. doi: 10.1002/ptr.6060. Epub 2018 Feb 26. PMID: 29480572.
  12. 12. Yamasaki M, Ogawa T, Wang L, Katsube T, Yamasaki Y, Sun X, Shiwaku K. Anti-obesity effects of hot water extract from Wasabi (Wasabia japonica Matsum.) leaves in mice fed high-fat diets. Nutr Res Pract. 2013 Aug;7(4):267-72. doi: 10.4162/nrp.2013.7.4.267. Epub 2013 Aug 7. PMID: 23964313; PMCID: PMC3746160.
  13. 13. Yamaguchi M. Regulatory mechanism of food factors in bone metabolism and prevention of osteoporosis. Yakugaku Zasshi. 2006 Nov;126(11):1117-37. doi: 10.1248/yakushi.126.1117. PMID: 17077614.
  14. 14. Trio PZ, Fujisaki S, Tanigawa S, Hisanaga A, Sakao K, Hou DX. DNA Microarray Highlights Nrf2-Mediated Neuron Protection Targeted by Wasabi-Derived Isothiocyanates in IMR-32 Cells. Gene Regul Syst Bio. 2016 Aug 11;10:73-83. doi: 10.4137/GRSB.S39440. PMID: 27547033; PMCID: PMC4982521.
  15. 15. Morroni F, Sita G, Tarozzi A, Cantelli-Forti G, Hrelia P. Neuroprotection by 6-(methylsulfinyl)hexyl isothiocyanate in a 6-hydroxydopamine mouse model of Parkinson׳s disease. Brain Res. 2014 Nov 17;1589:93-104. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2014.09.033. Epub 2014 Sep 23. PMID: 25257035.
  16. 16. Caggiu E, Arru G, Hosseini S, Niegowska M, Sechi G, Zarbo IR, Sechi LA. Inflammation, Infectious Triggers, and Parkinson’s Disease. Front Neurol. 2019 Feb 19;10:122. doi: 10.3389/fneur.2019.00122. PMID: 30837941; PMCID: PMC6389614.

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