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Capers, a Paleo Condiment?

By Loren Cordain, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Founder of The Paleo Diet
December 23, 2017
Capers, a Paleo Condiment? image

As a wee lad of 11 during the summer of 1962, I remember an adventure with my father in his bright red, 1953 Studebaker Commander as we drove from Carson City, Nevada to Highway 341 (the Comstock Highway), then up the canyon past Silver City, past Gold Hill and eventually arriving at our destination, the old Virginia City, Nevada refuse dump. We spent an entire Saturday morning there digging for antique bottles.

Father and son had a great day together. We uncovered two spectacular bottles that I have kept in my possession to this day. The first bottle was dazzling, emerald green in color, tall (8 ½ inches), slender and with eight fluted sides (Figure 1). My Dad informed me that this was a “capers bottle.” As a young boy, I had absolutely no idea what “capers” were, or where they came from, or even how they were used. I only knew that the beauty and artistry of this bottle attracted my attention. Later in the morning Dad and I discovered yet another capers bottle (Figure 2), that was shorter (6 ½ inch), more squat with an applied glass lip and a beautiful aquamarine blue color. Pictured below are the two capers bottles my father and I uncovered at the Virginia City dump 55 years ago.

Capers, a Paleo Condiment? image

Years later, I eventually decided upon a career in academia involving exercise, health and nutrition. I am now retired, but find myself writing about the very topic of capers, and the ~ 130 to 150-year-old capers bottles that my father and I had dug up in Virginia City, Nevada, 55 years ago.

Today, it is obvious to me that the capers in these beautiful bottles dated to (~1870-1890) came from the pickled immature, flower bud of a plant (Capparis spinosa) which commonly grows as a wild weed in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions of the world, as the map below indicates (Figure 3). Frequently, capers are planted and harvested as a commercial, agricultural plant. [19]

Capers, a Paleo Condiment? image

From a historical perspective, the two antique capers bottles that made their way to the Virginia City refuse dump in the late 19th century were most likely manufactured and stuffed with pickled capers harvested in either Spain, Italy or Greece. How these beautiful capers bottles found their way to Virginia City, Nevada in the late 19th century is less clear. Did they cross the Atlantic to New York City packed in crates from a transport ship, only to be put on horses or trains to San Francisco and finally to Virginia City? Or did they round Cape Horn on ships and arrive in San Francisco to be later transported to Virginia City by horse or train?

It seems likely that imported European capers were a food item that few Virginia City residents in the late 19th century could afford. Hence, the capers bottles that my father and I uncovered in the old Virginia City refuse dump probably came from restaurant discards used for certain dishes on their menus.

What are Capers?

Most experienced cooks and chefs are familiar with capers, as are many home cooks who typically sprinkle this item on smoked salmon.

Veteran chefs use capers as a spice or condiment to flavor a wide variety of recipes including: [1] Classic chicken Piccata, [2] Herb crusted leg of lamb with mint Gremolata, [3] Quick broiled barramundi fillets with Puttanesca sauce, [4] Sautéed chicken with olives, capers and lemons, [5] Roasted vegetables with caper vinaigrette, [6] Italian salsa Verde, [7] Smoked salmon with horseradish caper sauce, [8] Watercress citrus salad with olive-caper vinaigrette, [9] Radicchio salad with toasted hazelnuts and capers, [10] and Asparagus with shallot-caper vinaigrette. [18]

When the immature caper flower bud is harvested from the bush, it is done according to the bud’s size. The smallest sizes, up to 7-8 mm in diameter are referred to as, “non-pareil” and are considered to be the most desirable. [24, 27] Larger sizes including, capucines (8-9 mm), capotes ((9-11 mm), fines (11-13 mm), and grusas (14 + mm) are not as valued. If the immature caper bud is not picked as it grows, its flowers produce a caper berry which is then pickled and served as a garnish for martinis or other drinks. [26]

Caper plants and their various components (buds, mature flowers, leaves, seeds and roots) are a rich source of polyphenolics and antioxidants [11, 14, 16, 17, 20, 21]. Table 1 below demonstrates that pickled capers are the sixth most concentrated source of food antioxidants and the eighteenth richest food source of polyphenolics. All food polyphenols are characterized by phenolic chemical structures which can deactivate reactive oxygen species (ROS) that may potentially damage our cells’ structure and function. Accordingly, food polyphenolics with their associated antioxidant capacity are known to play a key role in the prevention of chronic disease including cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases and osteoporosis. [14, 28]

Capers, a Paleo Condiment? image

Specifically, fresh or dried caper (Capparis spinosa) parts (leaves, flower buds, mature flowers, seeds, roots, thorns and twigs) and their alcoholic extracts have been shown to have potent anti-inflammatory and inhibitive effects in both tissue [8, 15, 20, 23] and animal models of various diseases that are attributed to their high polyphenolic content. [5, 6, 12, 13, 14, 20, 23, 25] Additionally, caper plants contain other important bioactive compounds including glucosinolates, alkaloids, flavonoids, anthocyanins, lipids, vitamins and minerals known to have favorable health effects. [1-4, 7, 9-10, 22]

Unfortunately, with virtually all of these studies, none of them employed the capers product eaten by real people (pickled capers, from bottles). Rather, scientists tested the isolated, alcoholic extract of fresh caper parts: leaves, roots, flower buds or berries. [5, 6, 8, 12, 13, 14, 15, 20, 23, 25] Almost all people worldwide universally eat capers tainted with salt and vinegar from the pickling process, and rarely or never have the opportunity to eat fresh caper parts.

The pickling of capers with salt, brine and vinegar transforms a once healthy, natural food that may reduce the risk for chronic disease into a high-salt food that increases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease, immune dysfunction and cancer.

The Nutritional Downside of Capers

Capers are rarely or never consumed fresh [24, 26], apparently because when eaten raw they are considered “unpalatably bitter, but once cured in a vinegar brine or in salt, they develop an intense flavor that is all at once salty, sour, herbal, and slightly medicinal.” [27] Capers are cured in one of three ways: (1) in a salt water brine with vinegar [the most common procedure], (2) in salt water brine only, or (3) with salt only. The last method is costlier and available only in specialty stores in the U.S. [26]

Both wild and cultivated caper plants grow widely in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions after the first rains of spring (April-May) and start disappearing during the beginning of cold weather (September-October). [19] Hence, fresh caper buds are available to harvest seasonally for about 6 months in their indigenous geographic range. Apparently, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern people reject fresh capers similar to raw olives and only consume them in their processed, salted state. [24]

Because capers are universally processed with salt, on a calorie by calorie basis, capers represent an incredibly high source of dietary sodium (Na+) compared to their potassium (K+) concentration. Table 2 below lists the nutrients in processed capers. Notice that just 23 kilocalories of capers contain an enormous amount of sodium (2,964 mg) that exceeds the recommended daily sodium intake of 2,300 mg [30] by 24 %. To put this figure into proper perspective, 23 kilocalories of capers represents just 1/100 of our normal daily caloric intake. Hence, if you were to eat pickled capers as your only daily food, you would consume a staggering amount (296,400 mg) of sodium. The ratio of potassium to sodium (K+/Na+) in pickled capers is 0.01 whereas in fresh vegetables this ratio averages 46.68 (31) and in fresh fruit it averages 387.07. [31] The average U.S. diet (per day) contains 3,584 mg of sodium (Na+) and 2795 mg of potassium (K+) yielding a K+/Na+ ratio of 0.77. [32] In contemporary Paleo Diets that mimic the nutritional characteristics of our ancestors, regular dietary K+/Na+ ratios of less than 1.00 are virtually impossible and in fact range from ~ 5.0 to ~ 10.0. [31, 33-35]

Capers, a Paleo Condiment? image

The consequence of a lifetime diet with a K+/Na+ ratios of less than 1.00 increases the risk of high blood pressure, stroke and cardiovascular disease [30, 36-38], increases the risk for autoimmune disease [39-42], increases the risk for immune dysfunction [43-48] and increases risk for cancer. [49-55]


When capers are eaten raw, they are considered “unpalatably bitter, but once cured in a vinegar brine or in salt, they develop an intense flavor that is all at once salty, sour, herbal, and slightly medicinal.” [27] The pickling of capers with salt, brine and vinegar transforms a once healthy, natural food that may reduce the risk for chronic disease into a high-salt food that increases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease, immune dysfunction and cancer.

The Sodium/Potassium Ratio and its Importance in Human Health
By Mark J. Smith, Ph.D.


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