Spices as antiseptics… maybe
For today, I’ve dug up a paper (I forget how) from 1998, when I was still in primary school, about why people like spicy foods, and why some cultures use more spice than others. The idea that we acquired a taste for spices to keep harmful bacteria in check isn’t implausible, but the evidence in the paper is more interesting than conclusive.
First off: does it work? Do spices have antibacterial properties? Yes, according to studies that the authors found. All the spices which had been tested were effective against some bacteria, and four (garlic, onion, allspice & oregano) had an effect on all the bacteria on which they were tested. Of course, publication bias might be hiding experiments where spices didn’t affect bacteria, but the researchers found studies for 30 of the 43 spices they were looking at.
The ‘secondary compounds’ which give spices their various, powerful flavours, are probably part of the plants’ defences against pests and diseases, so it’s not a great surprise that they’d work against other bacteria.
The focus of the paper is the researchers’ rather epic study of traditional recipes. From 93 traditional recipe books, they read over 4500 meat-based recipes (meat is more likely to cause food poisoning) from 36 countries, noting the spices used in each. Most recipes included at least one spice, with onions and pepper the two most common overall. They match this up with the climate in each country, to find that hotter countries have more recipes with spices in, use more spices per recipe, and use the available spices more often. This, they say, is because bacteria will multiply quicker in warm countries, so more spices will be needed to keep them in check. On the other hand, they didn’t find any connection between spice use and rainfall.
It’s an interesting idea, but the statistics they use to check it aren’t great. It all hinges on whether each country can be treated as an independent case. They spend the best part of a page trying to justify this, but in the end seem to say “if we grouped some countries together, there wouldn’t be enough to do statistics with.” I sympathise, but I reckon it might be misleading to do statistical tests at all. There’s a particular problem at the cooler end of the temperature range, where almost all the countries are in Europe. If we share a common, relatively non-spicy cuisine, that could be making the correlation look stronger than it really is.
They also look more specifically at which spices are being used: for example, they reckon that hotter countries use more of the spices that are most effective against bacteria. But this, too, is a bit misleading. Even ‘traditional’ recipes can include relatively new foods; what could be more English than roast potatoes, from a plant we knew nothing of a few centuries ago? Chilli peppers are also from South America, so couldn’t have been used in Indian cuisine before Columbus. Many of the spices they look at have been spread around the world only in the last few centuries, presumably into cultures which had already developed tastes for more or less spicy food.
The patterns are interesting, and going through thousands of recipes must have taken a fair amount of work. But I don’t think the statistical analysis is enough to close the case. Perhaps an experimental approach would compliment it: how well do different combinations of spices delay bacteria growing on meat at different temperatures? And could humans hit upon this without knowing about bacteria, by associating non-spicy food with the nausea caused by food poisoning? The ethics committee might have something to say about testing the latter, but perhaps it could be done with rats.
Billing, J., & Sherman, P. (1998). Antimicrobial Functions of Spices: Why Some Like it Hot The Quarterly Review of Biology, 73 (1), 3-49 DOI: 10.1086/420058