Why Plants Have Strong Flavors and Effects

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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Animals can also use their mobility to avoid becoming another creature’s meal, by fleeing or fighting. But stationary plants? They compensate for their immobility with a remarkable ability for chemical synthesis. These master alchemists produce thousands of strong-tasting, sometimes poisonous warning signals that discourage bacteria, fungi, insects, and us from attacking them. A partial list of their chemical warfare agents would include irritating compounds like mustard oil, hot-chilli capsaicin, and the tear-inducing factor in onions; bitter and toxic alkaloids like caffeine in coffee and solanine in potatoes; the cyanide compounds found in lima beans and many fruit seeds; and substances that interfere with the digestive process, including astringent tannins and inhibitors of digestive enzymes.