Health benefits of pickled capers

If you like to spice your food with capers you may be in luck. Capers are the immature flower buds of the caper bush, Capparis spinosa, growing naturally in the Mediterranean and parts of Asia and Africa. Capers are harvested early in the morning before the heat opens the flower bud. There are also the caper berries, the resulting fruit picked much later in the season.

Archaeological evidence for human caper consumption dates back as far as 10,000 years, according to archaeological findings from Mesolithic soil deposits in Syria and late Stone Age cave dwellings in Greece and Israel.

Multiple health benefits proposed

Pickled capers are common in Mediterranean cuisine, where they provide a salty tang and decorative flair to a variety of meats, salads, pastas and other foods. Apart from the culinary benefits, capers may also have beneficial health effects. Too good to be true, read on and all will be revealed.

Actually, capers have traditionally been used as a folk medicine for hundreds if not thousands of years. True or false, it has been proposed that capers have anti-bacterial, anti-carcinogenic, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory properties. It has also been suggested that capers might strengthen capillaries and inhibits platelet clump formation in blood vessels, relieve rheumatic pain and act as an appetite stimulant. Sounds like a bit much. However, evidence for their efficacy is in some cases supported by clinical findings but as it is often purely anecdotal we need more proof.

Let’s untangle this a bit

It is well known that capers are rich in flavonoid compounds including rutin and quercetin. During the common pickling process of the capers, rutin is further converted to quercetin. This makes pickled capers the richest natural source of quercetin with reported maximum concentrations of 520 mg/100 g. Mechanistically, quercetin has been shown to exert antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer activities in a number of cellular and animal models, as well as in humans through modulating the signalling pathways and gene expression involved in these processes.

And now new research from the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine has found that quercetin activates proteins required for normal human brain and heart activity. Specifically, the researchers discovered that quercetin modulates potassium ion channels in the KCNQ gene family. These channels are highly influential in human health and their dysfunction is linked to several common human diseases, including diabetes, cardiac arrhythmia, and epilepsy.

The study revealed that quercetin modulates the KCNQ channels by directly regulating how they sense electrical activity in the cell. In doing so, it tricks the channel into opening when it would normally be closed. Increasing the activity of KCNQ channels in different parts of the body is potentially highly beneficial, suggesting a previously unexpected mechanism for the therapeutic properties of capers.

Alternative sources of quercetin

So now we know that capers are actually good for our health. Capers are also low in calories and high in vitamins and minerals. Unfortunately, they are also high in salt thanks to the way they’re preserved. As they’re bitter on their own, capers are stored in brine or packed in salt. If you’re watching your salt intake that’s worth bearing in mind.

However, don’t despair as there are alternative sources of quercetin. It is found in many fruits, vegetables, leaves, seeds, and grains. Red onions and kale are common foods containing appreciable amounts of quercetin.

So you just have to dig in.