Japanese horseradish or wasabi (Eutrema japonicum) is a spicy, horseradish-like plant in the cabbage family with reputed anticancer properties comparable to those of its cruciferous relatives, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and so on. Wasabi is native to the island of Japan and most of the world’s production originates in several areas of the archipelago as well as in a few regions in Taiwan, China, New Zealand and North America. There is presently quite a high demand for the condiment, but because of the rather difficult growing conditions required by the plant and the scarcity of suitable extensive cultivation areas, wasabi production remains unsatisfactory. For this reason, the condiment is often pricey as well as hard to find, except for high-end restaurants.
What does wasabi look like? Wasabi looks a lot like a green-dark brown root with the remains of what appear to have been leaves attached on top. You can even say it looks like a sort of green horseradish. Real wasabi is generally cultivated in mountain stream beds or humid rain forests in North America and requires to be partially submerged in water, hence its high costs and the belief that it is a root. The truth is wasabi, as seen in the image above, is the stem of the plant. The plant requires around three years of optimal growing conditions to reach maturity. At this point, the stem grows quite thick and the plant reaches almost 50 cm in height and forms large, yet fragile green leaves. The peel of the plant is brown-green, while the flesh is light green in color.
What does wasabi taste like? As you may already know, wasabi is a hot condiment with quite a pungent taste and smell. Inhaling wasabi powder can cause a strong pain sensation and so can eating too much paste at once or accidentally rubbing your eyes after handling it. But if you have just enough, the initial pungency turns into a pleasantly sweet and mellow aftertaste. The plant is traditionally used to condiment foods such as fish, sushi or rice and is served either grated, in the form of a powder, or as a paste, made by adding water or other ingredients, depending on the recipe (soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegar, honey). Whether you grate fresh wasabi or mix the powder with a little water, know that it needs to sit around 10-15 minutes before it can be consumed. After only 15-20 minutes, wasabi is said to start loosing some of its strong flavor.
Wasabi can be purchased as a raw stem, mostly in Japan and its surrounding islands, in powder form or grated, available in special market-places across the US or as a paste. However, it is always wise to purchase your wasabi, no matter its form, from reliable sources as many selling points will try to sell you a mix of mustard, horseradish or other condiments from the Brassicaceae family with green food coloring labeled as wasabi. While most Brassicaceae plants are famous for their quite amazing health benefits, you deserve to get real wasabi seeing that you are paying for it.
Like most of its relatives, wasabi too possesses several amazing medicinal properties. Here are 8 remarkable nutrition facts and health benefits of wasabi:
1) Anticancer properties. Wasabi was shown to contain important amounts of isothiocyanates, naturally occurring substances found in the cabbage family group. According to research, isothiocyanates induce apoptosis (a sort of programmed cell death) in cancer cells and are able to do so within 24 hours of ingestion. For this reason, consumption of vegetables such as cabbage, mustard, horseradish, turnip, broccoli, cauliflower, wasabi, etc. is said to reduce cancer risks and inhibit existing tumor growth.
Wasabi is believed to be particularly efficient in the case of breast cancer and prostate malignancy because it helps eliminate excess hormones such as estrogen, as well as stomach cancer because it can inhibit stomach cancer cell proliferation.
2) Cardiovascular benefits. According to researchers, wasabi possesses potent antiaggregant and cholesterol-lowering properties. Not only does it help lower high blood cholesterol levels by stimulating liver and gallbladder function in view of a better digestion of fats from food, but it was also shown to help lower stroke and heart attack risks by preventing cholesterol plaques within artery walls as well as blood clot formation.
3) Strong natural antibacterial. Wasabi is known for its strong antibiotic, antifungic and antibacterial properties. Studies suggest it is efficient against both E. coli and Staphylococcus bacteria. According to Science Daily, eating wasabi inhibits the growth of Streptococcus mutans, a bacteria responsible for dental cavities, dental plaque and tooth decay. Apparently, the isothiocyanate compounds in wasabi prevent the bacterium from adhering to teeth and thus help prevent tooth decay.
4) Antiparasitic effects. Wasabi was shown to be efficient against Anisakis parasites found in various marine species such as cod, salmon, squid, etc. Infestation occurs when fish containing the parasite are eaten raw or inappropriately cooked, resulting in painful gastrointestinal symptoms and even bowel obstruction and anaphylaxis. However, as efficient as wasabi may be, it is highly recommended to freeze the fish for several days prior to consumption in order to avoid infestation and consult a medical professional if you suspect you may have consumed food with parasites.
5) Anti-inflammatory and mild analgesic activity. Research suggests wasabi possesses quite strong anti-inflammatory effects which may result in mild pain-relieving properties, should the plant be consumed regularly. By helping reduce inflammation, a major cause for chronic illnesses, wasabi may contribute to lower cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease risks. At the same time, while it reduce inflammation, wasabi can cause irritation of the throat and stomach lining and worsen digestive disorders such as acid reflux, gastritis or hemorrhoids.
6) Digestion aid. The main constituents in wasabi appear to stimulate digestion by stimulating liver and gallbladder function in view of breaking down fats from food. Nevertheless, eating too much wasabi may just as well cause gastrointestinal problems such as nausea, diarrhea, confusion or sweating and worsening gastritis and acid reflux.
7) Good for the respiratory tract. Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, wasabi is believed to help relieve nasal congestion, improve bronchitis evolution as well as contribute to better asthma management. Surprisingly, it is believed that it may even potentiate asthma medication effects as well as antibiotic and anticoagulant medication activity. However good it may be for the respiratory tract, please pay attention that wasabi does not come in contact with you nose or eyes.
8) Good source of nutrients. Although wasabi has a decent nutitional profile, containing small amounts of essential nutrients such as vitamins A, C, B1, B2, B3 and minerals such as potassium, magnesium and calcium, the fact that we eat far less than 100 g per meal means that we have a small nutritional intake anyway. Still, the plant remains a precious addition to our diet as a result of its cardiovascular, anticancer, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial benefits derived from its isothiocyanates content.
Clearly, wasabi has some wonderful health benefits, but remember that consumption of the condiment, especially in large amounts, may trigger several unpleasant side effects and possibly interact with prescribed medication. Side effects of wasabi consumption include gastrointestinal problems, diarrhea, nausea, sweating, confusion and acid reflux. People suffering from stomach ulcer, acid reflux, gallbladder problems or having HRT (Hormone replacement therapy) should consider talking to a medical professional first to avoid worsening existing medical conditions.