Does Wasabi Improve Memory?

Why the headlines are probably wrong about the spicy condiment

Gideon M-K; Health Nerd

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Pictured: Spicy and delicious. Photo by Beth Macdonald on Unsplash

Wasabi is a fascinating condiment. It’s incredibly hard to grow, with commercial operations outside of Japan largely failing to reproduce the conditions required to harvest it on masse, which makes it not just rare but extremely expensive. And according to new headlines, in addition to the mystique of expense and rarity, wasabi can cause a “really substantial boost” in people’s memory if they take it every day as a supplement.

While this news seems rosy — memory is a tricky problem to solve, and any improvements in our ability to help older people remember things is a major breakthrough — the reality is definitely a bit less useful. The study behind all this hype isn’t great, and the funding situation is somewhat problematic.

Let’s look at the science behind the claims, where I will finally get to use the phrase Big Wasabi unironically.

The Study

The paper in question is a small randomized trial recently published in the MDPI journal Nutrients. This is a pretty low-quality journal, and in general is not a great starting point for the trial. The study itself is neither terrible nor brilliant — it’s quite a boring example of reasonably good scientific practice with some issues but nothing wildly problematic.

Pictured: Pretty boring, most of the time. Photo by Talha Hassan on Unsplash

The research consisted of randomizing older Japanese people to either receive a pill containing concentrated wasabi powder or a placebo for 12 weeks. Participants did a range of memory-related tasks before and after this period, and the researchers measured the difference.

Of the 12 outcomes that the researchers reported, there was no difference between the two groups on 8 of them. Both wasabi and placebo improved. For the remaining 4 — tasks relating to episodic and working memory — there was no change in the placebo group, but the wasabi takers had some modest improvements. This led to 4 areas in which the wasabi group had a statistically significant difference to placebo at the end of the trial.

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