Sitting in kitchen cabinets and on counters around the world, shakers of delicious spices are primed and ready, packed with superpowers. Superpowers? Oh yeah—these packets of flavor, from salt to saffron, do more than just make your food taste better: they very well may be the reason you’re here today!

Take a look at the cuisines of the world and you’ll notice something interesting. Cultures that live closer to the equator tend to use more spices in their traditional cuisine, while those who live further away tend to prefer their dishes a little blander. The warmer it is, it seems, the spicier (or full of spice) the food is. It’s a bit curious, right?

So why is this? Is there something we’re missing in the wide world of wonderful food culture? Do spices have some kind of superpower in warm climates? Well, if you were cooking for your friends and family back before the days of refrigeration in warm equatorial climates, it may have seemed that way! How? Well, keep reading!

Image: An array of colorful spices on spoons

Source: Pixabay

 

First up, what is a spice?

Well, spices aren’t just things that make food “spicy”. Spices are plants, seeds, and vegetables that are used to add flavor to a dish. These include things like garlic, onion, cumin, cinnamon, chilies, peppercorns, and even the juices of lemons and limes. 1 Throughout history, spices have had a special place in our cultures. We’ve seen them buried in ancient graves, used as a medicine, and as the base of the world’s epicenters of trade.

Spices have long helped define one of the most basic elements of culture: food. From Indian curry to Jamaican Jerk, Mexican mole to Ethiopian Berbere, for a lot of us, the “flavors” of home cooking start at the spice rack!

But, while you’ve been adding cloves of garlic and dashes of cumin to dishes for ages now, did you know that those spices are doing more than just adding beloved flavor to our foods?

Many of our most common spices have secret superpowers you didn’t even know were there. They protect us from bacteria, can reduce carcinogens in some foods 2, and are the subject of new research looking into other health benefits, but… how? And why is it that cultures in warmer climates seem to use more spices in their cuisine?

The answers start at the source of all our delicious spicy wonders: the plants themselves. It turns out, their natural defense systems against microbes can continue to work their magic on food!

To get the spicy scoop on all things delicious, here’s a great video from Joe Hanson of It’s Okay To Be Smart. It will leave you feeling like the smartest person in the kitchen the next time you open up your spice cabinet or reach for a clove of garlic!

It’s Okay To Be Smart is one of my favorite YouTube channels. If you’re a curious mind or a science nerd of any kind it’s the go-to place to find entertaining and well-researched content that always satisfies my curiosity!

So, what do you think? Are you going to look at your spice cabinet the same way again?

I certainly will pick up every pinch of chili pepper, clove of garlic, and teaspoon of cumin with a bit more appreciation for their bacteria-fighting power! And kitchen guests be warned: there are some fun facts coming your way.

For a deeper look at spices’ bacteria-fighting power,  check out this great article from Cornell about the study Joe mentioned! In the study they found that garlic, onion, allspice, and oregano were the best bacteria killers, killing everything. Thyme, cinnamon, tarragon, and cumin were able to kill up to 80% of bacteria. Chilies and other hot peppers killed or inhibited up to 75% of bacteria; and black and white pepper, ginger, celery seed, and lemon and lime juice were able to inhibit 25% of bacteria! 4 Who knew we had so many incredible bacteria-fighters just sitting on our shelves!

Studies like these remind us that there’s so much to learn from the world’s remarkable cultures and traditions! What new corners of medicine and transformative questions in science could studies like these uncover? What have we already figured out without knowing it?

There are incredible avenues of study just waiting to be uncovered at the intersection of culture and science!

One of my favorite stories of using cultural wisdom in the modern world looks at how some scientists are turning to medieval medicinal texts to fight antibiotic-resistant infections!

32 minutes

Medieval Medicine for the Modern World

This is the tale of how an ax-wielding nun, a medieval text, and modern science came together to find a cure to one of today's greatest medical dilemmas. Get ready for an incredible story of discovery...

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Whether your home cooking layers on the spices or you like things a little more mellow, food culture is a wonderful storyteller. And now, for all of us, that story got a little more fascinating!

Now, when I eat some of my favorite spice-filled foods or throw a head of garlic into the pot, I have a greater appreciation of how generations before me used their intuition and smarts to look at what they had available to them and turn it into something deliciously life-saving. Our cultural ancestors may not have had refrigeration or fancy blenders, but they did know what worked, what fed their families, and kept them healthy. From that seemingly simple desire to nourish their loved ones, we now have the incredible array of food traditions we do today!

So, the next time you dig into your favorite spicy dish, take a moment to appreciate the wonders of culture and science happening all in one bite!

Stay beautiful & keep laughing!

-Liesl

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Notes:

  1. “Food Bacteria-Spice Survey Shows Why Some Cultures like It Hot | Cornell Chronicle.” Cornell Chronicle, 2020, news.cornell.edu/stories/1998/03/food-bacteria-spice-survey-shows-why-some-cultures-it-hot. Accessed 28 Apr. 2020.
  2. Li, Zhaoping, et al. “Antioxidant-Rich Spice Added to Hamburger Meat during Cooking Results in Reduced Meat, Plasma, and Urine Malondialdehyde Concentrations.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 91, no. 5, 2010, pp. 1180–4, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20335545, 10.3945/ajcn.2009.28526. Accessed 28 Apr. 2020.
  3. It’s Okay To Be Smart. “The Surprising Reason We Eat Spicy Food.” YouTube, 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sziIUZgdgk. Accessed 28 Apr. 2020.
  4. “Food Bacteria-Spice Survey Shows Why Some Cultures like It Hot | Cornell Chronicle.” Cornell Chronicle, 2020, news.cornell.edu/stories/1998/03/food-bacteria-spice-survey-shows-why-some-cultures-it-hot. Accessed 28 Apr. 2020.

Liesl Ulrich-Verderber

COO of Ever Widening Circles, Founder of EWCed

Since 2015, Liesl has been a writer, editor, and the COO at Ever Widening Circles. She is a life-long camera-toting traveler, a global story seeker, and an aspiring—but more often floundering—outdoor enthusiast. She can be found on Instagram @Liesl.UV