Friday, April 25, 2014

Spice Up Your Life

Why We Like It Spicy

A spicy food lover? Are your taste-buds just
attracted to the flavor or is it something else? Paul W. Sherman and his colleagues have taken an evolutionary approach to the reasoning behind various groups’ love for spices. To clarify, “spice” is a culinary term that refers to a variety of dried shrubs, vines, trees, aromatic lichens, roots, flowers, seeds, and herbaceous plant roots [1].  Each spice contains a variety of “secondary compounds” or phytochemicals which have evolved in plants to aid in protection against insects and other life forms that may prey on the plant [1]. Sherman’s theory states that depending on their climate, humans have evolutionary acquired the desire for spices not only for their flavor, but for their antimicrobial activity and ability to combat food-borne illnesses. Stemming from this hypothesis are multiple predictions: 1) spices should exhibit potent antimicrobial properties 2) geographic regions with the warmest climates should show the greatest use of spices, as these regions are threatened more by food spoilage and 3) recipes from hot climates should impede a larger proportion of bacteria than recipes from cold climates [1].

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 [1]. The most potent spices revealed to be garlic, onion, allspice, and oregano as they inhibited or exterminated every bacterial species tested [1]. 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 [1].

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 [2].

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 [3].

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 [1]. 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 [1].

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 [1]. 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.

Let's Cover All Bases

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.
But if this was the case, then evolution would lean towards us eating foods infested with disease-causing microorganisms [4]. Thus, the first alternative explanation was debunked. The other alternative explanation was spices have uses besides fighting microbes, such as aiding in digesting, regulating metabolism and delaying diabetes and heart disease [1]. Although some spices exhibit these beneficial effects, a good amount does not, so this cannot be the primary explanation behind regional variance in spice use [1].

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.


  1. Garlic is one of my favorite species that I love to be used when cooking. I began to love it more when I found out that taking garlic pills help with shedding of hair and also stimulates new hair growth. I actually decided to try them my self because I am on a healthy natural hair journey to see if the research was true and guess what? IT WORKED! My mom and sister also take them now and too saw a reduced in shedding and increase in hair growth. I also researched other benefits for consuming more garlic and I also found out that it takes with cancer prevention. Several studies have found that consumption of garlic compared to those who don’t eat garlic, or who eat low dosage, are at a lower risk of getting intestinal cancer and have a 50% lower chance of getting colon cancer. The other benefit of garlic is hat it can treat skin infections such as ringworm and also athlete’s foot. Improvement of ion metabolism and cardio protective benefits, production of H2 gas, are also some other benefits of garlic.

  2. At my house, some people love spices while some do not. I like most spices, though not spicy ones so much. Growing up, my mother always made us eat turmeric and other spices in our foods saying they are good and so I grew accustomed to them. My friends who eat at my house a lot have adapted to liking more spicier and tastier foods than I do. Turmeric, ginger, garlic, and cinnamon are a few of the ones that we use a lot and some are also used as herbal remedies. More and more health benefits of spices are being seen, such as ginger helping with joint pain and turmeric being an antioxidant. I think people should know about these benefits and make use of the spices. They taste good and are helpful for your body, so why not eat them.

  3. With the invention of different ways to preserve your food like refrigerators or pickling of different types of food, has the difference in spices made as much of a difference depending on the region? America especially follows the hygiene hypothesis where we obsess over anything and everything being sterile. With this focus and larger focuses on keeping spoilage low, are spices as necessary from an antimicrobial stand point. I understand their importance in areas like the San Bushmen where access to refrigerators is not possible, but what about the developed world? Many countries are not like Iceland where you can put your meat outside to freeze and slow bacteria growth. Because of different drugs we inject into most of our food nowadays, is this as much of a problem? Are spices now just being used for flavor and not for their antimicrobial properties?

  4. Spices are a really important part of my diet. As a vegetarian, I don't have many food options in western cuisine. Granted there are a few great ones, coming from Italian and Spanish foods, but otherwise, it really just salad salad and more salad. The worst part about dining on campus is simply how redundantly bland the food is. It's not bad food, its just that I grew up eating Indian cuisine, and so my tolerance for/ appreciation for spicy and strongly flavored foods is much higher than a western pallet. I really think its an interesting hypothesis, but I feign support for the evolutionary perspective of spice consumption. Spice consumption is like preventative medicine, where as examples in the animal world are mainly symptomatic relief. A dog will eat grass, or chew on poisonous leaves to induce regurgitation and maybe get over an upset stomach, but won't intentionally seek certain herbs. Granted that dogs aren't the best example, considering that they are domesticated animals that have restricted diets. If there were evidence of spice consumption in higher order mammals, specifically primates, then I could understand the evolutionary perspective. I really think its just a question that spices make food taste better. It's along the same lines of listening to dull music, or experiencing the world in black and white colors. Without spices, food is bland, and our ancestors likely found that adding it to the food made it taste better. 

    PS: On a more mythological note, the first text on Ayurveda, a medicinal science based on the consumption of natural, plant derived chemicals, is said to have been written by Ravana, a mythological king who lived many years ago. ​

  5. I tend to agree with Karsh in the sense that evolutionarily speaking, it does not make complete and perfect sense that the use of prices would have evolved to prevent microbial growth in foods. I like how Dr. Drace discussed the subject in class. Perhaps people used more spices simply because they were the available substances in those cultures. My roommate is from Guatemala and they culture uses many spices in their dishes. However, she loves American food and chinese food, and a multiplicity of other foods.When I ask her about the spices from her country, she tells me that she likes them, but they were the only spices she knew until she tried our culture's spices. In other words, her cultural foods developed because it was what was available in the limited region that they had. In a similar fashion, we've incorporated many other foods to our diets with no evolutionary basis whatsoever from cattle in the Americas to sugar in Europe. Both of which are used in many staple cultural dishes but both of which have been imported and have no health benefits whatsoever.

  6. I agree with what Sherman predicted that spices can exhibit antimicrobial properties. I also somewhat agree with the third hypothesis since the Japan and Korea example that author wrote about shows that well. However, I do not fully agree with his prediction that says the warmest climate should show the greatest use of spices. The spices does prevent and delay the food spoilage, however there are some exceptions. Korea is located in the East Asia and does not have the warmest weather (it is actually pretty cold there in spring, fall and winter), but has tons of spiced food. Many Korean people assume that this happened due to the rapid economic growth and the increase of stress responding to the growth. In fact, spicy foods have the component called capsaicin which triggers the release of endorphin, the stress fighter. In addition, Korean people tend to enjoy this spiciness since they believe that sweating due to the spicy food is also healthy and good for stress relieving. Therefore, the use of spice is not always related to the climate, but it can also be related to other factors such as culture.

  7. Really interesting read. I know that when I was having teeth issues when I was younger, usually chewing on garlic lowered the swelling. It seemed the garlic worked against the inflammation, which was probably due to bacteria. I never thought at that time that this would be a usable fact. I was just glad my mouth did not hurt. My great grandmother used to cook with an extensive amount of spices including garlic, tumeric, and various peppers. Considering that she was cooking various "rodent" like animals like possum and squirrel, it seems it was useful that she used such a plethora of antimicrobial spices, but I'm sure she didn't know that. It was just how she was raised. She cooked the way her mother taught her and so on. Therefore, I believe it is plausible that spice were used to eat otherwise unsafe food and those recipes just past down through generations. Maybe it was one of those stumbled upon discoveries that if you put this root with this meat, you won't get sick. And those that did not get sick continued to eat this root with this meat and taught their children the recipes.

  8. Ever since I was young I would always ask my family why they ate their food so spicy. (I wasn't a big fan of spices, especially hot sauce.) They would always say that the spice will "burn it outta yah." At first I didn't think so, but as I grew to love spice I found it believable. Now, it's really interesting to find that what they said was true (Always trust your elders, kids.) Also, another alternate hypothesis I would have liked to have seen examined would have been the availability of foods to the people. Maybe some regions used more spices because of their ease of access, as well as anti microbial property.

  9. I am a firm believer that spices have other properties in addition to adding flavoring. Growing up, anytime I had a stomach ache I was always given ginger ale, or just plain ginger root and garlic. Both seemed to help every time. Additionally, my family members are firm believers that eating spices such as chilis, chili powder, and cajun seasoning of any type will help a cold. As someone who loves to cook, I use a lot of spices, and over the years I have learned that different spices help myself in differing ways. I like to eat salty foods when I have a migraine, something that the doctors have not figured out, but it works. Along with everything else we have studied, it all seems to be discovered through a trial and error process.
    This article suggests that the first spices were used for their flavoring, and is an interesting read:

  10. Spices are an extremely important part of my family’s diet. Not only is our palette accustomed to a large variety of spices and herbs including cumin and coriander in our diet, but we also have used some spices as a type of Indian homeopathic medicine, which had been done for many generations before me. I suffered from hyperchlorhydia (increased stomach acidity levels) and gas reflux when I was around younger. In addition to the prescribed medication my pediatrician gave me, my parents gave me drink known as “jeera paani” (or boiled water containing cumin seeds). Unlike the other spices we used to garnish our food, jeera paani tasted horrible; however, I used to take the drink even after my doctor took me off prescription medication. The high levels of acidity and gas reflux calmed down pretty quickly, and I felt a lot better. My symptoms were completely gone in 2 or 3 years. I am sure my symptoms did not decrease solely due to the drink; the prescription medication I was on must have helped. However, it would be worthwhile to understand the chemical mechanisms behind these spices, so that one day we could work toward creating inexpensive drugs using the same compounds found in the spices.

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  12. Sherman and Billings clearly had a conclusion in mind. Otherwise they wouldn't have made such a grievous mistake regarding disease organisms infesting our food.

    WE DO eat food infested with disease causing organisms, as such germs are impossible to avoid.

    EATING them however is NOT the threat as giving them access to our circulatory system of living layers of skin.

    Our digestive system from end to end is custom designed to deal with disease causing organisms by walling them off from the body beyond it. The ways we do that are numerous and vary from point to point.

    We have the innate immune system, the active immune system as well as commensal bacterial allies that in carving our a safe space for themselves in our digestive system prevent deadly ones from establishing themselves. Though they can also turn quite deadly if they escape the confines of our digestive system and gain access to our bloodstream via a wound Etc.

    People often don't know what tonsils are for. As I recall the circulation for the mouth is routed through the tonsils which are packed with immune cells ready to pounce on any deadly germs that make it past the various barriers that are inherent in the mouth itself.

    The mouth is packed with potentially deadly germs. Many are minimally harmful as long as they are in the mouth, but can become deadly should they gain access to our circulatory system. That's why there is a fatal risk of septicemia whenever someone develops a toothache.

    In fact we even put various deadly organisms to use fermenting all sorts of food. As long as in the process they don't gain access to our insides, we're fine.

    Yeast can be quite deadly.

    The organisms that rot cheese likewise if put in our bloodstream. Colostrum difficile

    And the surface of red meat is contaminated almost immediately with disease causing organisms. That's why we cook it, and if we are too casual about eating rare meat risk serious even deadly food poisoning.

    Did they forget oysters and other sea life teaming with deadliness that is safe to EAT if prepared properly and not rubbed into our wounds LOL.

    Really though the conclusion that spices are essential for covering up bad tastes and smells as utter nonsense, because we often find the smell of decay and putrefaction to be appealing.

    Cheese is nothing but bacterially digested milk, and beer the end product of bacterial digestion. In effect we're eating bacterial waste. Also, many disease causing organisms don't make food smell bad per se, and quite often

    As a result the answer is not so simple.

    Sometimes spices could be used to cover up spoiled food that once cooked is safe to eat, but would smell nauseating regardless without the spices.

    Other times we can use spices to enhance the smell and taste associated with spoilage as in mulled wine.

    It's strange that they seem to have been mislead by a subjective definition of contamination and spoilage that defines stuff we like to eat or drink like beer and cheese as not by definition spoiled or rotted food even though objectively they have been as thoroughly worked over by germs of all kinds as much as that horrifying slab of slimy green something we wouldn't dream of eating and smells so bad we're afraid to touch it.

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