Why We Like It Spicy
What’s the big deal? Antimicrobial properties!
Thirty spices were tested and all were found to kill or inhibit at least 25% of the different bacteria they were tested on, while half of the spices were found to kill or inhibit at least 75% of the bacteria . The most potent spices revealed to be garlic, onion, allspice, and oregano as they inhibited or exterminated every bacterial species tested . This is a comforting statistic as it is more likely for bacteria to be the cause of a food-borne illness outbreak than yeast or fungi and the tested bacteria are found worldwide .
Don’t believe in the power of spices yet? Perhaps the San people will help change your mind.
The San Bushmen are a group of nomadic hunters/gatherers in the Kalahri desert in southern Africa whose diet consists of only spicy foods (mainly plants), yet exhibit great health .
So, should Icelandic people be rushing to the local supermarket and gathering spices? No, they need not worry. Sherman states there’s no need for them to use spices as a meat left outside overnight would freeze, slowing the accumulation of bacteria .
Looking All Over the World
Sherman and Billings looked at “traditional” meat-based recipes worldwide and tabulated what countries used what amount of spices per recipe in order to determine if there was a pattern in spice use . These results were hard to analyze. In another approach, they focused on the annual temperature of geographic regions. Their assumption was that a country’s annual temperature should be proportional to its meal spoilage rate. Thus, their prediction was countries with higher annual temperatures should use more spices in their recipes. Their prediction proved to be true. Results of countries showed as the average annual temperature increased, the number of spices used significantly increased, especially in spices that are highly effective in inhibiting bacterial species .
Variation in Food Poisoning Rates
In their research, Sherman and Billings compared the number of food-borne illness cases between Korea (whose recipes traditionally contain spices) and Japan (whose recipes traditionally don’t contain spices). Results showed between 1971 and 1990, food poisoning affected 29.2 out of every 100,000 Japanese people and 3.0 people out of every 100,000 Koreans . Although there are additional factors to consider as to the reasoning behind the statistic, this result largely supports the theory that spices reduce food-borne illnesses.
Sherman and Billings also explored other possible explanations for regional spice use. This included the ability of spices to hide a putrid flavor or odor.
Let's Wrap it Up
With all of this evidence, it is difficult to ignore the impact of spices, as well as Sherman's reasoning behind regional variation of spice use. So think twice before you eat a meal with little to no spice. If you’re not going to do it for your taste buds, at least do it for your intestinal tract.
4. Zuk, M. Riddled with Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites That Make Us Who We Are. Orlando: Harcourt, 2007. pp 211-212.