The taste of mustard and other amazing spices comes from a long chemical war that the plants have been fighting with caterpillars for millions of years.
We eat mustard, horseradish, broccoli and cabbage all the time, because we appreciate the specific taste that these vegetables and spices have. You’ve most likely never thought about this, but it took millions of years for their particular tastes to evolve. Fortunately, a team of researchers at the University of Missouri has thought about it and they decided to look into the matter.
The story behind the mustard we put on hour hotdogs every single time is quite amazing actually, because it is basically the outcome of a Plants vs. Caterpillars epic battle that has spanned over millions of years.
The plants included in the order Brassicale and the cabbage butterfly and the rest of its order have been trying to outsmart each other for a very long time now. The situation led to an actual chemical warfare, because both parties have developed defense mechanisms along the years of a chemical nature.
The Brassicale plants have producing a series of chemical substances that are toxic to the caterpillars of the cabbage butterfly and its gang. “It turns their guts inside out.”, as pointed out by the lead author of the study, Chris Pires, University of Missouri biologist.
These substances are called glucosinolates and while they seem to be very bad news for the caterpillars, they are extremely good news for us, since they are the ones that give these plants their amazing flavors.
“Why do you think plants have spices or any flavor at all? It’s not for us”, said Chris Pires. “They have a function. All these flavors are evolution.”
The caterpillars have developed specialized chemicals of their very own, that would enable them to survive in the face of the glucosinolate “bombs”. Their chemical defense has facilitated them to feed on the Brassicale plants and thus decimate their populations.
Naturally, over the course of the millions of years, the plants then developed a more powerful cocktail of glucosinolates in order to survive the hungry caterpillars. This, in turn, has caused the caterpillars to upgrade their defenses as well and so the evolutionary war went on and on and has eventually led to the wonderful pallet of flavors that we encounter today.
Us humans seem to be the biggest beneficiaries of this chemical warfare, as we have watched from the sidelines, while helping ourselves to some cabbage and horseradish.
The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and it was met with great interest by the scientific community, as Chris Pires and his team of researchers were the first to ever analyze this amazing co-evolution process.
Image Source: rhs.org.uk