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Friday, December 15, 2000

No need to
turn your teeth
green over wasabi

A researcher finds just a bit
of wasabi may hamper dental
decay, even cancer

By Helen Altonn

WASABI may be a perfect complement to sushi and sashimi. But do you want to brush your teeth with green horseradish?

That's one idea to provide the many health benefits from wasabi's chemical components, particularly to prevent tooth decay.

Hideki Masuda, director of the Material Research and Development Laboratories at Ogawa & Co. Ltd. in Japan, described the health benefits of wasabi in a talk, "Brush, Floss and 'Eat Your Wasabi,'" at the 2000 International Chemical Congress of Pacific Basin Societies yesterday.

Masuda said he would like to see a wasabi-based toothpaste. But wasabi is very -- make that extremely -- hot, he pointed out, suggesting it might be better to eat tiny amounts of the green stuff with sushi, sashimi or noodles.

Assisted by interpreter Keiko Grant at a news conference at the Ilikai Hotel, Masuda said laboratory tests show isothiocyanates -- chemical compounds found in wasabi -- inhibit growth of the bacteria that causes dental cavities.

He said wasabi's unique properties have long been known to the Japanese. The isothiocyanates have been associated with prevention of cancer and harmful blood clots and have been helpful in fighting asthma and allergies.

His research shows that even minor chemical components in wasabi have very strong benefits, he said. Wasabi has properties that are as "almighty" as antibiotics against any type of bacteria, Masuda said.

With teeth, the wasabi compounds kill an enzyme needed to form plaque, he said.

"It's not how much you eat," he said, recommending that people don't try to eat a lot at one time unless they're fond of hot peppers or chilis.

He said the Japanese have a saying, "If you eat too much, it is worse than eating none at all."

A little bit of wasabi, eaten every day, will interfere with plaque formation and provide other benefits, he said.

Horseradish, which Westerners eat with beef, and vegetables such as cabbage and broccoli have similar components, Masuda said. They belong to the Cruciferous plant family.

Wasabi, or Wasabia japonica, has thick stems that are ground into the green paste served as a condiment with sushi and sashimi.

Masuda said he eats wasabi once a day but has cavities because of "lots of sweets" when he was young.

He said no research has been done to show whether the Japanese have better teeth than people in other countries because of frequent consumption of wasabi.

Nor has he done any human trials yet with the plant, he said, adding that he is looking for volunteers.

For those who don't eat sushi or sashimi and can't tolerate the pungent green horseradish, the future may bring a pill or other means of benefiting from the compounds, Masuda said. "That would be very effective."

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