"You still don't understand what you're dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. I admire its purity. A survivor … unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality." - Ash to Ripley (Alien, 1979)
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 .
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 . 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 .
What’s the big deal? Antimicrobial properties!
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 .
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
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
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.
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 . 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 . 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 .
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.