Flavor Families: Pungent Chemicals

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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There is a major exception to the rule that herbs and spices provide aroma. The two most popular spices in the world are chillis and black pepper. They and a handful of other spices—ginger, mustard, horseradish, wasabi—are especially valued for a quality often called hotness, but best called pungency: neither a taste nor a smell, but a general feeling of irritation that verges on pain. Pungency is caused by two general groups of chemicals. One group, the thiocyanates, are formed in mustard plants and their relatives, horseradish and wasabi, when the plant cells are damaged. Most thiocyanates are small, light, water-repelling molecules—a dozen or two atoms— that readily escape from the food into the air in our mouth, and up our nasal passages. In both the mouth and nose they stimulate nerve endings that then send a pain message to the brain. The second group of pungent chemicals, the alkylamides, are found pre-formed in a number of unrelated plants, including the chilli, black pepper, ginger, and Sichuan pepper. These molecules are larger and heavier—40 or 50 atoms—and therefore less prone to escape the food and get up our nose; they mostly affect the mouth. And their action turns out to be very specific. They bind to particular receptors on certain sensory nerves and essentially cause those nerves to become hypersensitive to ordinary sensations—and thus to register the sensation of irritation or pain. The mustard thiocyanates appear to act in a similar way in the mouth and nose.