Airdate: Aug 23, 2001
Scientist: Prof Paul W. Sherman
Spices & Microorganisms: Evolution
The taste of food through the ages may have been influenced more by the evolution of microorganisms than a fickle palate.
What's the most dangerous thing that you do all day? Well, it just might be eating your lunch. I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. Food can be contaminated by all manner of disease-causing organisms. Through the centuries, humans have had to find ways to protect ourselves from the food we eat. One of the most effective means has been by using spices, which can kill or inhibit the growth of parasites, bacteria and fungus. Dr. Paul Sherman, a professor at Cornell University, says that historically the use of spices has been a dynamic process.
"If we could follow a recipe back to its origination - hundreds, or maybe thousands of years ago - I would expect that the recipes would change. And the reason they would change is that the bacteria and fungi are being selected by the spice, and those that can overcome that particular spice would, of course, do better in the next generation.
In other words, over time, if a spice is effective against a specific set of disease causing organisms, you can bet that a new crop of microbes will come along immune to the effects of that spice.
"So, just as with antibiotic resistance of various microbes alive today, I would assume that we would have anti-spice resistance in various food-borne bacteria and fungi. Individuals who experiment and add a new spice might be able then, to quell the new bacteria or fungus, and therefore, be healthier. This should then spread through the society quickly and we would have a continuing co-evolutionary race, if you will, between parasites and pathogens on the one hand, who are evolving to get around the spices, and spice use practices which would change through time in order to quell the newly minted bacteria."
Pulse of the Planet is presented by the National Science Foundation.