Here’s another theory about why people eat spicy foods. The hotter the climate, the spicier the cuisine, states a report by Jennifer Billing and Paul W. Sherman of Cornell University, in Quarterly Review of Biology, March 1998. They believe the chemicals that keep spice plants safe from their natural predators are the same compounds that keep food safe for human consumption, particularly in warm climes where bacteria grow faster. “We believe the ultimate reason for using spices is to kill foodborne bacteria and fungi,” said Sherman, an evolutionary biologist and professor of neurobiology and behavior.
They analyzed more than 4,570 recipes from ninety-three cookbooks that represent the traditional cuisines of thirty-six countries, and correlated the temperature and precipitation levels of each country, the horticultural ranges of forty-three spice plants, as well as the antibacterial properties of each spice. As a result, they found that in hotter climates, almost every meat-containing recipe uses at least one spice, if not more, with an emphasis on the more potent spices. Thailand, the Philippines, India, and Malaysia top the hot-climate food list, with the U.S. and China in the middle, and Sweden, Finland, and Norway at the bottom.
Here’s how various spices rank in terms of their antimicrobial properties:
- Garlic, onion, allspice, oregano — kill 100 percent of bacteria
- Thyme, cinnamon, tarragon, and cumin — kill 80 percent of bacteria
- Capsicums, including chiles and hot peppers — kill or inhibit up to 75 percent of bacteria
- Pepper (white or black), ginger, anise seed, celery seed, juices of lemons and limes–inhibit 25 percent of bacteria.