Irritation: Pungency

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

The sensations caused by “hot” spices and vegetables— chillis, black pepper, ginger, mustard, horseradish, onions, and garlic—are most accurately described as irritation and pain (for why we can enjoy such sensations). The active ingredients in all of these are chemical defenses that are meant to annoy and repel animal attackers. Very reactive sulfur compounds in the mustard and onion families apparently do mild damage to the unprotected cell membranes in our mouth and nasal passages, and thus cause pain. The pungent principles of the peppers and ginger, and some of the mustard compounds, work differently; they bind to a specific receptor on the cell membranes, and the receptor then triggers reactions in the cell that cause it to send a pain signal to the brain. The mustard and onion defenses are created only when tissue damage mixes together normally separate enzymes and their targets. Because enzymes are inactivated by cooking temperatures, cooking will moderate the pungency of these foods. By contrast, the peppers and ginger stockpile their defenses ahead of time, and cooking doesn’t reduce their pungency as much.