Marie Poirot writes about the research at Australian National University studying the use of spices in cuisines all over the world to show the complexity of evolutionary science.
You might not have heard of it, but “Darwinian gastronomy”, or the study of the evolution of cuisines, can tell us a lot about the evolution of humanity. Cuisines are a key element of our evolution, as food has always had a huge impact on our survival. It shapes and is shaped by our cultures and environments. Evolutionary science in general is a complex science, and this one is no exception. Simple connections that seem obvious in the first place can end up hiding a lot of complexity.
By studying the use of spices in the world’s cuisine, researchers from the Australian National University, led by Lindell Bromham, highlight the complexity of the evolution of food. The researchers studied a total of 70 cuisines and 33,750 recipes spread over multiple geographical areas, including a total of 93 different spices. They sought to determine if a correlation could be found between the use of spices and factors such as foodborne illnesses or climate. Several studies suggest that the spices in cuisines are used to ward off potential infections, especially in hotter-climate countries where foodborne illnesses are more prevalent. However, Bromham and her team show us that things are a bit more complicated.
Indeed, groups living close to each other are culturally similar and share many things, including their cuisine. If we look at the UK’s food history, we can see that it was largely influenced by its Western European neighbours, such as the Vikings or the Normans, through trade or invasions. Global trade and colonization later brought influence from all over the world and new dishes and spices to British tables — to the point that some consider the British curry a national dish. However, this influence came later, and traditional British cuisine is still very far from what you could eat in New Delhi. So, in addition to sharing similar dishes, these geographically close groups share another thing: their climate. This creates a bias that could explain the correlation found between the use of spices and the climate.
Although the researchers found a correlation between infections and foodborne illnesses, they also showed one could be made with unrelated factors, like poverty or even car accidents. According to Bromham, “these results do not suggest that poverty causes higher spice use, just as they do not suggest that car accidents increase spice use. Instead, they demonstrate that correlations between aspects of human cultural groups that show distinct spatial and historical patterns, such as infection risk and spice use, should be interpreted with caution”. The researchers conclude that “spicier food tends to be found in hotter countries” where foodborne illnesses are more prevalent, but they couldn’t prove “that spice use patterns represent cultural adaptation to infection risk”.
But it does not mean that eating spices is useless – apart from making something delicious. Spices still hold many interests for our health: many studies highlight the health advantages of herbs and spices used over the world. Spices are packed with antioxidants and other compounds that can be beneficial for health. For example, cinnamon might lower blood sugar, turmeric contains curcumin which may have anti-inflammatory properties and garlic may be good for heart health.
Therefore, some might wonder about the conclusions of this study. It doesn’t give any clear answer or definite conclusion about why people use spices, or the evolutionary patterns behind it. It still seems unclear as to why some places ended up cooking with more spices than others. However, this study highlights the complexity of scientific research. It reminds us that science is full of uncertainties, and that it is by constantly questioning and challenging ideas that scientists make progress. So next time you cook something, don’t hesitate to reach for your spice rack; you might not understand the complex history behind why that jar of nutmeg ended up in your kitchen, but at least you can be certain it will make your food delicious — and it might even be good for you.
Marie’s thoughts… Reading this study and researching the topic really gave me a fresh perspective on it. For a long time, I believed that spices had always been used to protect people from food poisoning, in addition to the taste and other potential health benefits. This study takes quite an original angle, as in the end it does not answer a question, but rather raises more questions. What I find most important in this research is that it shows that, sometimes, science is also about challenging ideas and creating uncertainties to show where more investigation is needed.
Written by Marie Poirot and edited by Samantha Jane.
Marie Poirot is a former Science Communication and Public Engagement student with a background in cell and molecular biology. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/marie-poirot-07089a146