• Wasabi grows in greenhouses in Nanoose Bay, B.C.

    Wasabi grows in greenhouses in Nanoose Bay, B.C. (Photo: Elizabeth Hames)

Wasabi’s value doesn’t stop at being a fiery complement to sushi. The root from which the fluorescent-green condiment is made is believed to have cancer-fighting properties and the ability to prevent grey hair. But before you add a sinus-clearing blob of the stuff to your next California roll, there’s something you should know.

“Almost all the wasabi in Canada is imitation,” a mix of horseradish and food colouring, says Brian Oates, president and chief science officer of Vancouver-based Pacific Coast Wasabi, the largest commercial wasabi producer in the world outside Japan. “And only five per cent of sushi restaurants in Japan serve real wasabi.”

But Oates wants to change that. Over the last 20 years, he’s developed a technique for growing the plant to produce wasabi that’s on par with what’s grown in Japan in terms of taste (more flavour, shorter burn) and concentration of bioactive components. The specifics are a trade secret, but Oates partners with farmers on Vancouver Island and other sites in British Columbia and the United States to grow wasabi using cool, fresh water, inside large greenhouses. (In Japan, it’s traditionally grown in cultured mountain streams.)

The method is working. Pacific Coast Wasabi is poised to increase the size of its crop exponentially as customers on both sides of the Pacific hunger for quality wasabi. “As more people find out they’re eating an imitation, they want the real thing,” says Oates, adding that demand has increased 65 per cent per year over the last two years. In 2012, the company produced one tonne of wasabi, worth $400,000. Oates anticipates doubling the size of his operation to 1.6 hectares by the end of 2013, with an eye to eventually having 12 hectares.

A growing chunk of that will feed the biomedical market. “It’s the Holy Grail,” Oates says. This year he founded a new company, Utremic Therapeutics Inc., to isolate the plant’s active ingredients and run clinical trials, with the goal of selling wasabi as a dietary supplement. “We think the potential is huge.”

Versatile wasabi

By Siobhan McClelland

Wasabi often brings to mind a green paste that gives a spicy kick to sushi dishes. But it’s more than just a meal topping. This potent condiment can help prevent diseases and even save lives. Here are five non-traditional ways wasabi is used around the world.

1. Cancer prevention

Wasabi is known to have many health benefits, including preventing cancer.  Isothiocyanate, a chemical in wasabi, can stop cancer cells from growing. This chemical sticks to defective protein in cancer cells and may prevent a defective mutant gene known as p53 from growing. Studies show wasabi helps to prevent breast, stomach and colon cancer.

2. Smoke alarms for deaf persons

Japanese researchers have looked into using wasabi in smoke alarm systems to awaken deaf people. Although other odours were tried, the pungent aroma from wasabi worked best, with most people waking up within one or two minutes of the wasabi alarm going off.

3. Wood preservative

Most preservatives used for wood are toxic. But wasabi offers an effective alternative that’s more environmentally friendly.

4. Cavity fighter

If you’ve run out of toothpaste, you may consider trying wasabi to stop tooth decay. The green glob contains chemical compounds that help stop the growth of Streptococcus mutans bacteria, which causes cavities.

5. Prevents food poisoning

Wasabi’s anti-microbial properties can help prevent food poisoning. Wasabi extract has even been used as a preservative in lunch bags in Japan. No wonder wasabi has been paired with raw fish for years!