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Seeking out the science behind curry

The Science: [So what? So everything] campaign, which aims to highlight the science behind our everyday lives, has brought together some fascinat- ing questions and answers about the science behind curry, including the potential health benefits of some of the ingredients that make up one of the nation’s favourite dishes. Here are some of the questions that the cam- paign has provided answers for. Why does chopping an onion make me cry? When an onion is sliced an enzyme in the vegetable is released and causes a chemical to split, creat- ing a substance that is an irritant to your eyes and nose. You immediately start to sniffle and weep, and your tears continue until they’ve success- fully removed the irritation. Garlic con- tains a similar chemical, called alliin, but does not have the other reactive chemicals, so it does not make you cry when you slice it. Many tricks have been suggested to stop you crying when chopping an onion, including using a fan to stop the chemicals from reaching your eyes.

sound, especially when you experience it at the start of a meal, could be telling you “what I’m about to eat is fresh”.

Crunchiness also adds a completely different textural and auditory dimen- sion to food which grabs your atten- tion. This helps make poppadoms and bombay mix so more-ish.

Why does curry stain so badly? Curry

causes problematic stains due to the bright yellow molecule called cur- cumin which is found in turmeric. Turmeric can be used as a dye for clothes as its molecules bind very strongly to cotton and other fibres.

As well as causing clothes to stain, turmeric as an ingredient has also been found to have some health bene- fits. Scientists recently found that cur- cumin, the chemical which gives this spice its yellow colour, is a great anti- oxidant source, and are exploring its potential to help liver and kidney func- tion, and its possible connections with treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease. The research has a long way to go, but has shown some positive results in the lab.

Why is a chilli hot? When you eat a

chilli (or its powdered form cayenne pepper) the areas of your tongue that normally sense heat and pain are stimulated, telling the brain that the area affected is burning. The sub- stance responsible for this reaction is called capsaicin, which raises the heart rate, increases perspiration and the release of endorphins. Contrary to popular belief, most of the heat in a chilli is found in the white pith – where the largest amount of capsaicin is found – rather than in the seeds. The burning sensation caused by chillies leads to the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. These can give us a feeling of happiness, which is perhaps why eating a hot curry makes us feel good.

Is the crunch of poppadoms addic-

tive? There has been a lot of scientific research into the way your brain inter- prets the sound produced when you bite into something crisp and crunchy. That cracking, snapping and popping

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Can the Indian side dish raita stop my mouth burning? It’s possible

that the yoghurt in raita might dis- solve the chemical capsaicin (which gives chilli its heat) and reduce the


heat experienced in your mouth’s pain sensors. But raita might also help to reduce heat because it includes cucumber, the crunch of which pro- vides the brain with enough distraction from the pain of the capsaicin to ease the feeling of discomfort.

Do other curry ingredients have

health benefits? As well as turmeric and chilli, popular curry ingredients, ginger and garlic, are also thought to have some health advantages. Ginger has many benefits, includ- ing relief for upset stomachs, anti- inflammatory and antioxidant effects and is well known for soothing diges- tion problems. Renowned for keeping hearts healthy, garlic has been used medicinally for years. Garlic contains a chemical called alliin, which when broken down by our bodies, not only creates the pungent ‘garlic breath’, but also reacts with red blood cells and produces hydrogen sulphide which dilates the blood vessels. In addition, garlic is an excellent source of sele- nium, which can help proper function- ing of the immune system.

For more information about the sci- ence behind curry and other areas of our everyday lives, visit

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