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Vegetable 'immune systems' protect better against food spoilage

ITHACA, N.Y. -- When Cornell University biologists claimed, in 1998, that the traditional use of spices has a function other than making food taste good -- namely to help protect against more and more dangerous forms of foodborne microbes -- one thing was missing from their antimicrobial hypothesis. Now, the Cornell researchers have stirred in that missing ingredient, showing why vegetable-based recipes in 36 countries around the world are less spicy than meat-based dishes in the same societies.

"Without spoiling your lunch, let's just say that the cells of dead plants continue to be better protected against bacteria and fungi than are the cells of dead animals, whose immune systems cease to function at time of death," says researcher Paul W. Sherman. "Meat-based recipes that were developed over the centuries in hot climates need all the help they can get from antimicrobial spices, whereas foodborne pathogens are less of a problem in plant-based foods. Indeed, meat products are more often associated with outbreaks of foodborne illness than vegetables, especially in hot climates."

Sherman, a professor of neurobiology and behavior, and Cornell undergraduate student Geoffrey A. Hash report their latest findings in an article, "Why Vegetable Recipes Are Not Very Spicy," in the June 2001 issue of Evolution and Human Behavior (Vol. 72, pp. 147-163).

Previously, Sherman and another Cornell undergraduate biologist, Jennifer Billing, were the authors of a March 1998 report in Quarterly Review of Biology analyzing 4,570 recipes from 93 cookbooks. The recipes represented traditional, meat-based cuisines of 36 countries, and their survey took into account the temperature and precipitation levels of each country, the horticultural ranges of 43 spice plants and the antibacterial properties of each spice. Billing and Sherman concluded that the original function of spices, particularly in hot climates before the advent of refrigeration, was to kil
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Contact: Roger Segelken
hrs2@cornell.edu
607-255-9736
Cornell University News Service
9-Jul-2001


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