Ever wondered why hot, spicy foods often come from hot, steamy locations? It turns out that using spices has as much to do with health as with taste.
In several studies, Paul Sherman, Ph.D., an evolutionary biologist at Cornell University, contrasted spice use in such hot-climate locales as Mexico and India, where unrefrigerated food spoils faster, with use in cooler countries, such as Norway and England. His research concludes that spices served as a preindustrial food safety measure.
In his first study, Sherman discovered that garlic, onion, allspice, and oregano killed every bacterial species tested, including E. coli and salmonella. His most recent study found that meat-based recipes are almost always spicier than vegetable-based dishes. Because microorganisms don't affect vegetables as quickly as meats, spices weren't necessary in vegetable dishes prior to refrigeration and preservatives.
Darwinian gastronomy is how Sherman describes his research, which focuses on the tension between humans' need for food to survive and the inherent danger of eating possibly contaminated food. "There's a conundrum in food," he says. "What do we do to get around the dangers? We do things that are good for us. Cultural traditions often make good sense, in terms of health and survival."