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Unlocking the Science of Wasabi

Scientists have figured out why eating a dollop of wasabi makes it feel like your head might explode -- a particular class of receptor molecules on the surface of nerve cells. The discovery could lead to a new class of painkillers for a variety of conditions.

Wasabi is that sinus-stinging green paste that's served with sushi and sashimi. Lately, real wasabi -- Eutrema japonica, a root-like rhizome -- has become rare. Some restaurants use a mixture of horseradish and green food coloring, with little or no actual wasabi in the mix. But as it turns out, the kick is the same.

Some food scientists believe people eat hot foods to show off, or because they get an endorphin rush from the pain -- or they like the pain itself. Precisely why is still a matter for further inquiry.

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Joe Palca
Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. From 2011 to 2020 he produced stories that explored the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors as part of his series, Joe's Big Idea. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.