Vegetable 'immune systems' protect better against food spoilage

l or inhibit food-borne bacteria and fungi.

"But plants don't need as much protection after we cook them," Sherman says. "Although plants do not have a true immune system, they are protected against microorganisms by natural chemical compounds, sturdy cell walls containing cellulose and lignin, and low pH [higher acidity]. These chemical and mechanical defenses continue to ward off infection for a longer time after we kill the plant. Animals do have an immune system, and it becomes defunct when they die."

To test their antimicrobial hypothesis, the biologists needed to see if traditional vegetable-based recipes from the same countries -- where meat-based dishes are hot and spicy -- use significantly fewer spices. Their analysis of 2,129 vegetable recipes from 107 traditional cookbooks of 36 countries showed that while spice use in vegetables increases somewhat with higher ambient temperatures, cooks across the temperature range used far fewer spices on vegetables than meats. Of 41 spices (from onion, pepper and garlic to fennel and savory), 38 are used more frequently in meat-based recipes (the exceptions are sesame, caraway and sweet pepper, which offer little antimicrobial protection). And in all 36 countries, vegetable dishes call for fewer spices than meat dishes

The latest finding is more than academic, Sherman comments, noting that the chemicals in spices can be allergens, carcinogens, mutagens and abortifacients (causing spontaneous abortions). "That's probably why kids and pregnant women tend to avoid spicy foods," he suggests.

"Humans have always been in a co-evolutionary race with parasites and pathogens in foods, and our cookbooks are the written record of that race," Sherman says. "We haven't had to 'run' as hard when we ate vegetables. We haven't had to use extra pharmaceuticals to make vegetables safe for consumption."


Contact: Roger Segelken
Cornell University News Service

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