Wasabi, your favorite sushi condiment, may improve cognition, according to a new study

By Lisa Marie Basile | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published December 8, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Wasabi is widely used as a pungent condiment for sushi; however, it is also a supplement that may provide health benefits. Recent research has found that a compound found in wasabi—6-Methylsulfinyl hexyl isothiocyanate (6-MSITC)—may improve working memory and episodic memory in older adults. 

  • Prior research has also shown that 6-MSITC may support gut health and inflammation. 

  • Experts say that patients should be careful about which wasabi supplements they take and the kinds of wasabi pastes they buy, as fake wasabi products are commonly sold.

For people who like a pungent kick with their sushi—or simply a bit of spice in general—wasabi (also known as wasabia japonica, a mustard or crucifer plant) is an incredible addition to a meal. Wasabi isn’t just delicious, however; it contains a bioactive compound called 6-Methylsulfinylhexyl isothiocyanate (6-MSITC), which researchers say offers a spectrum of potential health benefits.[]

Amy Reynolds, RD, CDCS, Founder of Nutrition Therapy & Wellness Co., says 6-MSITC is an isothiocyanate, a compound found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. These powerful isothiocyanates, researchers say, have been widely studied for their disease prevention and therapeutic effects, although more information is needed.[]

Recently, a study published in Nutrients explored the therapeutic effects of these compounds on human cognition. Specifically, the study looked at how 6-MSITC affected cognitive functions in older adults.[]

The participants had to meet certain criteria to be included in the study. They had to be right-handed native Japanese speakers without food allergies. They also had to be 60–80 years of age and not use medications known to interfere with cognition. 

Participants also couldn’t have a history of mental illness, diabetes, cranial nerve disease, or cardiac disease, and they couldn’t be heavy drinkers. Those with lower cognitive function and more depressive moods were excluded from the study.

Over 12 weeks, 72 older adults were, at random, given either a 6-MSITC supplement or a placebo. The researchers examined the participants through a spectrum of cognitive domains, including executive function, episodic memory, processing speed, working memory, and attention, both before and after the 12 weeks. 

The findings showed that the participants who had taken the 6-MSITC “showed a significant improvement in working and episodic memory performances compared to the placebo group. However, we did not find any significant improvements in other cognitive domains…This study firstly demonstrates scientific evidence that 6-MSITC may enhance working memory and episodic memory in older adults.”

This wasn’t the first study to explore the relationship between wasabi and cognition. In a small study published last year, researchers examined how 6-MSITC affected patients with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). Fifteen patients were given 6-MSITC supplements each day for 12 weeks. They found that “6-MSITC improves PS [performance status] as well as subjective symptoms such as pain and cognitive dysfunction, and psychological vitality of patients with ME/CFS.”[] Beyond cognition, wasabi has also been shown to offer other health benefits. For example, according to Advances in Pharmacological and Pharmaceutical Sciences, 6-MSITC compound suppresses cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2), inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS) enzymes, and cytokines, all of which play a role in inflammation.[] 

Moreover, wasabi’s isothiocyanates have been shown to improve adiposity, obesity, and metabolic and cardiovascular disease in animal studies. The authors say that the compound may deliver its benefits by altering the makeup of the microbiota.[] 

Wasabi is also helpful in the short term. “Wasabi also has anti-bacterial properties against common food-borne pathogens such as E. coli,” which is why it pairs so nicely with raw fish, says Yelena Wheeler, a registered dietitian nutritionist at the National Coalition on Health Care. 

Real wasabi is actually quite hard to grow, Wheeler says, which means there are a lot of fake wasabi products on the market. Instead of the real thing, Wheeler says, “horseradish is often used as a substitute, [but] it’s still beneficial since it contains ITC.” 

According to research published in 2021, horseradish offers some of the same benefits of wasabi and is “vastly underexploited for its abilities as a medicinal plant species for improving human health.”[]

“It’s not uncommon to order or buy something labeled ‘wasabi’ only to find it’s really a blend of other ingredients,” Reynolds says. “The bad news is that if you’re eating wasabi for its potential health benefits, you may not be getting what you’re looking for.” Reynolds also says that patients should be careful when selecting wasabi supplements, as studies are limited, and the supplements aren’t evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration for safety or efficacy. “Unless supplements are third-party tested, consumers can’t be sure they’re even getting actual wasabi in their supplements,” Reynolds adds. “With ongoing human trials, this could change.” 

If your patients want to enjoy wasabi but don’t enjoy sushi, wasabi doesn’t have to be eaten solely with raw fish, Reynolds says. “[It] can be used in marinades and salad dressings, as a substitute for horseradish, in dips and spreads like aioli and hummus…or even as a [marinade] for fish.”

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter