The chemistry of garlic’s pungent bite

Humans have an intriguing penchant for consuming what nature intended as deterrents. Chili peppers, horseradish, some toxic mushrooms, and that wild fugu fish… people just love all these. And it’s kind of funny because nature made these things hot or dangerous to keep animals away, but here we are, not just eating but actually enjoying them.

And since today’s all about celebrating garlic (didn’t you know? Today is National Garlic Day!), let’s talk about the science behind this fiery favorite of ours.

Garlic has been a culinary and medicinal staple since forever. Its distinctive taste and pungent flavor are beloved by many cultures around the world. But have you ever wondered why it burns when we taste it?

At the heart of garlic’s pungency is allicin, a compound that triggers specific responses in our bodies. Allicin activates TRPA1 and TRPV1 ion channels in the neurons innervating our mouth and tongue, creating that unmistakable sharp sensation.

Interestingly, raw intact garlic contains no allicin. But when garlic is sliced, crushed, or chewed, the enzyme alliinase rapidly converts the precursor compound alliin into allicin, making us feel that special pungent flavor through TRP channels.

So, it seems like garlic is “soft and fuzzy” by nature. It only becomes pungent when disturbed.

Now, baked garlic, although very flavorful, lacks pungency. This is because when garlic is cooked, the heat denatures the alliinase enzyme, preventing it from converting alliin into allicin. So, hot garlic isn’t that hot anymore.

Aside from its pungent taste, garlic is infamous for causing something known as ‘garlic breath armor’—a natural defense mechanism against unwanted social interactions.

And let’s make it clear right away that ion channels are not to blame for this aromatic shield.

Instead, sulfur compounds like allyl methyl sulfide take the credit. These compounds are quite slow to break down and can stay in the body for hours, or even days, making you regret eating that extra clove or two.

And while mouthwash and breath mints might seem like logical counterattacks, they’re surprisingly ineffective. Instead, parsley and milk are the secret weapons to mask that residual garlic effect.

So, you might be wondering how to celebrate National Garlic Day. Well, it’s simple: incorporate garlic into every meal of the day! Yes, you risk that no one will be willing to hug you this day, but that’s the price to pay for its unmatched flavor.

Are you up for the challenge?