Is it true that hot spices make food last longer?
Around the world, the warmer and wetter the climate, the more flavorful the food - this can hardly be a coincidence. Malicious gossips claim that it is only a matter of concealing the bad taste of already rotting food. You're wrong, because spices have always acted as natural preservatives.
What the German tourist can hardly bear, the Thai eats with pleasure. The situation is no different in Central and South America, and even in France and Italy people use more spices than in Germany. There are good reasons for this: high temperatures cause food to rot faster - spices stop it.
To do this, they first have to prevent oxidative processes, i.e. the decomposition of fats, coloring and flavorings through oxygen - which is easy to observe when freshly sliced apples turn brown. Antioxidants, on the other hand, help protect food from oxygen by being oxidized itself.
The fight is also against the microorganisms. Fungi and bacteria either only promote putrefaction or can even cause diseases. A simple remedy for this is s alt – people have been curing meat and fish since ancient times. It binds the water molecules that the pests need to survive.
The preserving effect of spices derived from plants is based on a wide variety of substances. To protect themselves from oxidation and attack by insects and microbes, plant cells produce what are known as phytochemicals. Although these are not directly needed by the cells, they benefit the plant as a whole. They are fat-soluble and can be extracted as essential oils. The industry now uses such spice extracts not only for their taste, but also to replace artificial antioxidants in food. The use of natural substances instead of artificial ones is currently being intensively researched.
Microorganisms can also effectively expel herbal spices, but the mechanisms responsible are very complex and largely unexplored. Plant substances usually act like antibiotics - they interfere with the metabolic system and prevent the growth and reproduction of bacteria or fungi.
Capsaicin, for example, which is found in peppers and chili peppers, influences genes that are responsible for the transport of substances and the construction of cell membranes. At the same time, it causes sweating when consuming chili. As researchers discovered ten years ago, the substance activates the same nerve receptors that are also stimulated by sudden heat - this explains the burning sensation in the mouth.
However, there is no direct connection between the spiciness of a spice and its effect. Cinnamon, for example, expels mold excellently, even better than pepper, ginger, caraway or hot paprika. Mexican oregano and basil oil also displace a wide variety of molds. Clove and garlic are best used against the growth of coliform bacteria. Cinnamon, oregano, sage, onion and celery help against various germs. The list of effective plants is by no means complete. The stronger and more varied a dish is seasoned, the poorer the chances for the microorganisms. And since these multiply faster when it is warm, spices are probably used more extensively in more southern countries.
Waldemar Ternes, professor at the Center for Food Sciences in Hanover, however, doubts that the antimicrobial effect plays an important role in comparison to the antioxidant effect. After all, it is always important to differentiate between the test system in the laboratory and the food in person. If the bacteria and fungi only give up at concentrations where the food is already inedible, there is precious little use in seasoning.
What exactly "edible" means depends on the latitude, as a look at the cookbooks reveals. But no matter where we dine: Spices not only provide the flavor but also the shelf life and digestibility of food. As scientists suspect, this was even their main benefit. This also explains why we like the spices so much: In the course of evolution, longer edible and he althier food meant an advantage for the spice lovers.