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.
Figure 1. Emerald green antique
Figure 2. Aquamarine blue antique capers bottle
circa 1880-90, Virginia City, NV, July 1962
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).
Figure 3. Map of the indigenous distribution of the caper plant (Capparis species) (19)
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.
The Caper Bud as a Condiment
Most experienced cooks and chefs are familiar with capers, as are many home cooks who typically sprinkle this item on smoked salmon (24). Figure 4 below.
Figure 4. Smoked salmon with pickled, bottled capers.
Veteran chefs use capers as a spice or condiment to flavor a wide variety of recipes including:  Classic chicken Piccata,  Herb crusted leg of lamb with mint Gremolata,  Quick broiled barramundi fillets with Puttanesca sauce,  Sautéed chicken with olives, capers and lemons,  Roasted vegetables with caper vinaigrette,  Italian salsa Verde,  Smoked salmon with horseradish caper sauce,  Watercress citrus salad with olive-caper vinaigrette,  Radicchio salad with toasted hazelnuts and capers,  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).
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.
Table 1. The top 20 richest food sources of polyphenolics and antioxidants (17).
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:  in a salt water brine with vinegar [the most common procedure],  in salt water brine only, or  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).
Table 2. The nutrient values present in capers (29).
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.
1.Argentieri M, Macchia F, Papadia P, Fanizzi FP, Avato P. Bioactive compounds from Capparis spinosa subsp. Rupestris. Industrial Crops and Products, 36 (1), 2012, 65-69
2.Bianco G, Lelario F, Battista FG, Bufo SA, Cataldi TR. Identification of glucosinolates in capers by LC-ESI-hybrid linear ion trap with Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry (LC-ESI-LTQ-FTICR MS) and infrared multiphoton dissociation. J Mass Spectrom. 2012 Sep;47(9):1160-9.
3.Boga C, Forlani L, Calienni R, Hindley T, Hochkoeppler A, Tozzi S, Zanna N. On the antibacterial activity of roots of Capparis spinosa L. Nat Prod Res. 2011 Feb;25(4):417-21.
4.Chedraoui S, Abi-Rizk A, El-Beyrouthy M, Chalak L3 Ouaini N, Rajjou L. Capparis spinosa L. in A Systematic Review: A Xerophilous Species of Multi Values and Promising Potentialities for Agrosystems under the Threat of Global Warming. Front Plant Sci. 2017 Oct 25;8:1845. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2017.01845. eCollection 2017.
5.El Azhary K, Tahiri Jouti N, El Khachibi M, Moutia M, Tabyaoui I, El Hou A, Achtak H, Nadifi S, Habti N, Badou A. Anti-inflammatory potential of Capparis spinosa L. in vivo in mice through inhibition of cell infiltration and cytokine gene expression. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2017 Jan 31;17(1):81. doi: 10.1186/s12906-017-1569-7.
6.Huseini HF, Hasani-Rnjbar S, Nayebi N, Heshmat R, Sigaroodi FK, Ahvazi M, Alaei BA, Kianbakht S. Capparis spinosa L. (Caper) fruit extract in treatment of type 2 diabetic patients: a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. Complement Ther Med. 2013 Oct;21(5):447-52.
7.Khatib M, Pieraccini G, Innocenti M, Melani F, Mulinacci N. An insight on the alkaloid content of Capparis spinosa L. root by HPLC-DAD-MS, MS/MS and (1)H qNMR. J Pharm Biomed Anal. 2016 May 10;123:53-62.
8.Kulisic-Bilusic T, Schmöller I, Schnäbele K, Siracusa L, Ruberto G. The anticarcinogenic potential of essential oil and aqueous infusion from caper (Capparis spinosa L.). Food Chem. 2012 May 1;132(1):261-7.
9.Lam SK, Han QF, Ng TB. Isolation and characterization of a lectin with potentially exploitable activities from caper (Capparis spinosa) seeds. Biosci Rep, 2009, 29 (5),293-299.
10.Maldini M, Foddai M, Natella F, Addis R, Chessa M, Petretto GL, Tuberoso CI, Pintore G. Metabolomic study of wild and cultivated caper (Capparis spinosa L.) from different areas of Sardinia and their comparative evaluation. J Mass Spectrom. 2016 Sep;51(9):716-28
11.Mansour RB, Jilani IB, Bouaziz M, Gargouri B, Elloumi N, Attia H, Ghrabi-Gammar Z, Lassoued S. Phenolic contents and antioxidant activity of ethanolic extract of Capparis spinosa. Cytotechnology. 2016 Jan;68(1):135-42. doi: 10.1007/s10616-014-9764-6. Epub 2014 Nov 7.
12.Maresca M, Micheli L, Di Cesare Mannelli L, Tenci B, Innocenti M, Khatib M, Mulinacci N, Ghelardini C. Acute effect of Capparis spinosa root extracts on rat articular pain. J Ethnopharmacol. 2016 Dec 4;193:456-465.
13.Mohebali N, Shahzadeh Fazeli SA, Ghafoori H, Farahmand Z, MohammadKhani E, Vakhshiteh F, Ghamarian A, Farhangniya M, Sanati MH . Effect of flavonoids rich extract of Capparis spinosa on inflammatory involved genes in amyloid-beta peptide injected rat model of Alzheimer’s disease. Nutr Neurosci. 2016 Oct 25:1-8.
14.Moufid A, Farid O, Eddouks M. Pharmacological properties of Capparis spinosa Linn. Int J Diabetol Vasc Dis Res, 2015; 3(5), 99-104.
15.Moutia M, El Azhary K, Elouaddari A, Al Jahid A, Jamal Eddine J, Seghrouchni F, Habti N, Badou A. Capparis Spinosa L. promotes anti-inflammatory response in vitro through the control of cytokine gene expression in human peripheral blood mononuclear cells. BMC Immunol. 2016 Aug 2;17(1):26. doi: 10.1186/s12865-016-0164-x.
16.Nabavi SF, Maggi F, Daglia M, Habtemariam S, Rastrelli L, Nabavi SM. Pharmacological Effects of Capparis spinosa L. Phytother Res. 2016 Nov;30(11):1733-1744.
17.Pérez-Jiménez J1, Neveu V, Vos F, Scalbert A. Identification of the 100 richest dietary sources of polyphenols: an application of the Phenol-Explorer database. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2010 Nov;64 Suppl 3:S112-20.
- Thompson JR. Caper recipes that’ll make you love the pickled flower bud. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/06/capers-recipes_n_1533909.html
19.Tlili N, Elfalleh W, Saadaoui E, Khaldi A, Triki S, Nasri N. The caper (Capparis L.): ethnopharmacology, phytochemical and pharmacological properties. Fitoterapia. 2011 Mar;82(2):93-101
20.Tlili N, Feriani A, Saadoui E, Nasri N, Khaldi A. Capparis spinosa leaves extract: Source of bioantioxidants with nephroprotective and hepatoprotective effects. Biomed Pharmacother. 2017 Mar;87:171-179
21.Tlili N, Khaldi A, Triki S, Munné-Bosch S. Phenolic compounds and vitamin antioxidants of caper (Capparis spinosa). Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 2010 Sep;65(3):260-5
22.Tlili N, Nasri N, Saadaoui E, Khaldi A, Triki S. Carotenoid and tocopherol composition of leaves, buds, and flowers of Capparis spinosa grown wild in Tunisia. J Agric Food Chem. 2009 Jun 24;57(12):5381-5.
23.Vahid H, Rakhshandeh H, Ghorbani A. Antidiabetic properties of Capparis spinosa L. and its components. Biomed Pharmacother. 2017 Aug;92:293-302. doi: 10.1016/j.biopha.2017.05.082.
24.Weinzweig A. The elusive caper. https://www.specialtyfood.com/news/article/the-elusive-caper/. Feb 18, 2003.
25.Zhou H, Jian R, Kang J, Huang X, Li Y, Zhuang C, Yang F, Zhang L, Fan X, Wu T, Wu X. Anti-inflammatory effects of caper (Capparis spinosa L.) fruit aqueous extract and the isolation of main phytochemicals. J Agric Food Chem. 2010 Dec 22;58(24):12717-21.
26.Cook’s Illustrated. Capers 101, January 2001. https://www.cooksillustrated.com/how_tos/5395-capers-101
27.Fine Cooking. Capers. http://www.finecooking.com/ingredient/capers
28.Scalbert A, Manach C, Morand C, Rémésy C, Jiménez L. Dietary polyphenols and the prevention of diseases. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2005;45(4):287-306
29.Nutritionist Pro Software. USDA data base and other worldwide nutrient databases. Axxya Systems. http://www.nutritionistpro.com/
30.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Vital signs: food categories contributing the most to sodium consumption – United States, 2007-2008. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2012 Feb 10;61(5):92-8.
31.Cordain L, Sebastian A. Aug 22, 2017. The potassium to sodium ratio in fresh foods unadulterated with added salt. https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1bbKEmcI1IDO8nSvD–wwfzKnoDeAt_xam02DLeMioGQ/edit#gid=0
32.Bailey RL, Parker EA, Rhodes DG, Goldman JD, Clemens JC, Moshfegh AJ, Thuppal SV, Weaver CM. Estimating sodium and potassium intakes and their ratio in the american diet: data from the 2011-2012 NHANES. J Nutr. 2016 Mar 9. pii: jn221184. [Epub ahead of print]
33.Cordain L. The nutritional characteristics of a contemporary diet based upon Paleolithic food groups. J Am Neutraceut Assoc 2002; 5:15-24.
34.Cordain L, Eaton SB, Sebastian A, Mann N, Lindeberg S, Watkins BA, O’Keefe JH, Brand-Miller J. Origins and evolution of the western diet: Health implications for the 21st century. Am J Clin Nutr 2005;81:341-54.
35.Frassetto L, Morris RC Jr, Sellmeyer DE, Todd K, Sebastian A. Diet, evolution and aging–the pathophysiologic effects of the post-agricultural inversion of the potassium-to-sodium and base-to-chloride ratios in the human diet. Eur J Nutr. 2001 Oct;40(5):200-13
36.McDonough AA, Veiras LC, Guevara CA, Ralph DL. Cardiovascular benefits associated with higher dietary K+ vs. lower dietary Na+: evidence from population and mechanistic studies. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2017 Apr 1;312(4): E348-E356.
37.Mozaffarian D, Fahimi S, Singh GM, Micha R, Khatibzadeh S, Engell RE, Lim S, Danaei G, Ezzati M, Powles J, et al. Global burden of diseases nutrition and chronic diseases expert group.
Global sodium consumption and death from cardiovascular causes. N Engl J Med. 2014 Aug 14;371(7):624-34
38.He FJ, Li J, Macgregor GA. Effect of longer-term modest salt reduction on blood pressure. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Apr 30;(4):CD004937
39.Wu C, Yosef N, Thalhamer T, Zhu C, Xiao S, Kishi Y, Regev A, Kuchroo VK. Induction of pathogenic TH17 cells by inducible salt-sensing kinase SGK1. Nature. 2013 Apr 25;496(7446):513-7.
40.Kleinewietfeld M, Manzel A, Titze J, Kvakan H, Yosef N, Linker RA, Muller DN, Hafler DA. Sodium chloride drives autoimmune disease by the induction of pathogenic TH17 cells. Nature. 2013 Apr 25;496(7446):518-22
41.Hucke S, Eschborn M, Liebmann M, Herold M, Freise N, Engbers A, Ehling P, Meuth SG, Roth J, Kuhlmann T, Wiendl H, Klotz L. Sodium chloride promotes pro-inflammatory macrophage polarization thereby aggravating CNS autoimmunity. J Autoimmun. 2016 Feb;67:90-101.
42.Zostawa J, Adamczyk J, Sowa P, Adamczyk-Sowa M. The influence of sodium on pathophysiology of multiple sclerosis. Neurol Sci. 2017 Mar;38(3):389-398.
43.Schatz V, Neubert P, Schröder A, Binger K, Gebhard M, Müller DN, Luft FC, Titze J, Jantsch J. Elementary immunology: Na+ as a regulator of immunity. Pediatr Nephrol. 2017 Feb;32(2):201-210.
44.Hernandez AL, Kitz A, Wu C, Lowther DE, Rodriguez DM, Vudattu N, Deng S, Herold KC, Kuchroo VK, Kleinewietfeld M, Hafler DA. Sodium chloride inhibits the suppressive function of FOXP3+ regulatory T cells. J Clin Invest. 2015 Nov 2;125(11):4212-22.
45.Yi B, Titze J, Rykova M, Feuerecker M, Vassilieva G, Nichiporuk I, Schelling G, Morukov B, Choukèr A. Effects of dietary salt levels on monocytic cells and immune responses in healthy human subjects: a longitudinal study. Transl Res. 2015 Jul;166(1):103-10.
46.Zhou X, Zhang L, Ji WJ, Yuan F, Guo ZZ, Pang B, Luo T, Liu X, Zhang WC, Jiang TM, Zhang Z, Li YM. Variation in dietary salt intake induces coordinated dynamics of monocyte subsets and monocyte-platelet aggregates in humans: implications in end organ inflammation. PLoS One. 2013 Apr 4;8(4):e60332.
47.Zhou X, Yuan F, Ji WJ, Guo ZZ, Zhang L, Lu RY, Liu X, Liu HM, Zhang WC, Jiang TM, Zhang Z, Li YM. High-salt intake induced visceral adipose tissue hypoxia and its association with circulating monocyte subsets in humans. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2014 Jun;22(6):1470-6.
48.Min B, Fairchild RL. Over-salting ruins the balance of the immune menu. J Clin Invest. 2015 Nov 2;125(11):4002-4.
49.Amara S, Tiriveedhi V. Inflammatory role of high salt level in tumor microenvironment (Review). Int J Oncol. 2017 May;50(5):1477-1481
50.Amara S, Alotaibi D, Tiriveedhi V. NFAT5/STAT3 interaction mediates synergism of high salt with IL-17 towards induction of VEGF-A expression in breast cancer cells. Oncol Lett. 2016 Aug;12(2):933-943
51.Amara S, Zheng M, Tiriveedhi V. Oleanolic acid inhibits high salt-induced exaggeration of warburg-like metabolism in breast cancer cells. Cell Biochem Biophys. 2016 Sep;74(3):427-34.
52.Amara S, Whalen M, Tiriveedhi V. High salt induces anti-inflammatory MΦ2-like phenotype in peripheral macrophages. Biochem Biophys Rep. 2016 Sep; 7:1-9
53.Amara S, Ivy MT, Myles EL, Tiriveedhi V. Sodium channel γENaC mediates IL-17 synergized high salt induced inflammatory stress in breast cancer cells. Cell Immunol. 2016 Apr; 302:1-10
54.Amara S, Majors C, Roy B, Hill S, Rose KL, Myles EL, Tiriveedhi. Critical role of SIK3 in mediating high salt and IL-17 synergy leading to breast cancer cell proliferation. PLoS One. 2017 Jun 28;12(6):e0180097. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0180097
55.Cordain L. Physiological Mechanisms: Underlying High Salt Diets and Cancer. August 22, 2017. https://thepaleodiet.com/physiological-mechanisms-underlying-high-salt-diets-cancer/