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August 16, 2005
Not for the Faint of Mouth: Why Garlic Packs Such a Wallop
By DENISE GRADY
Just think of it as the activation of nociceptors, accompanied by vasodilation, vascular leakage and inflammation.
One of life's great sensations - what happens when a person bites into a clove of raw garlic - has been deconstructed by a team of scientists. It turns out that garlic fires up the taste buds by using the same biological pathway as two mouth-burning condiments, chili peppers and wasabi mustard.
The process is described by researchers from the University of California, San Francisco and Lund University in Sweden in a paper being published online today in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The chain of events goes like this: crushing garlic causes a chemical reaction that forms allicin, a pungent, sulfur-containing molecule similar to the one in wasabi.
The allicin locks onto a structure on nerve cells called an ion channel, and makes that channel open up.
Other molecules rush the channel and flood the nerve cell, causing it to fire and send the garlic signal to the spinal cord and then the brain. It all takes place in a split second.
The result: pain nerves fire, the mouth stings, burns, swells, waters and turns red. Some reach for ice water or a hunk of bread, but others can't wait for the next hit.
Garlic and wasabi use the same ion channel, and chili peppers use a very similar one. And the same pathways register hot temperatures in the mouth.
Plants that pack a chemical wallop probably evolved to discourage predators. But the strategy has not kept humans away, said David Julius, an author of the paper and a molecular biologist at the university in San Francisco.
Why so many people have developed a taste for the fiery and smelly is not clear, Dr. Julius said, but he noted that some pungent herbs and spices have antibacterial properties that may help to preserve food, a boon in the hot climates where spicy food seems to be most popular.
"You learn to use it in interesting ways and like it," he said. DENISE GRADY