If you’re familiar with Mediterranean cuisine, then you’re probably also pretty familiar with capers. These edible flower buds may be small, but they pack a good dose of flavor, nutrients and health benefits into each serving. They’re also a highly versatile veggie and make a great addition to salads, sauces, dressings and more.
So what are capers, and what are they used for? Here’s everything you need to know about this incredible Mediterranean diet staple ingredient, including why you may want to start adding it to your weekly dinner rotation.
What Are Capers?
What is a caper? The caper bush, also known as Capparis spinosa, is a type of plant native to the Mediterranean that has rounded leaves and flowers that range in color from white to pink. It also produces the caper berry, a fruit that is often consumed pickled, as well as an edible flower bud known as the caper, which is generally used as a seasoning and garnish.
Capers are typically salted and pickled, giving them their distinct, sharp capers taste and pungent aroma. They’re considered a staple in many Mediterranean dishes and are frequently featured in Cypriot, Italian and Maltese cuisines. They are also a central ingredient in tartar sauce and are often used in salads, sauces and pasta dishes.
In addition to their one-of-a-kind flavor and aroma, capers are also incredibly nutrient-dense and have been associated with several important health benefits. In particular, capers have been shown to reduce inflammation, enhance liver health, stabilize blood sugar levels and more.
1. May Stabilize Blood Sugar
Adding capers to your diet is a good way to bump up fiber intake without significantly increasing calorie consumption. A single ounce contains about one gram of fiber with only about 6.5 calories. Fiber helps slow the absorption of sugar in the bloodstream to keep blood sugar levels stable in the long term and promote glycemic control.
Not only that, but some research has found that certain components of the caper plant may have anti-diabetic properties as well. One study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine even found that caper fruit extract was effective at lowering blood sugar in people with diabetes. While more research is needed on how capers can affect blood sugar in the amounts found in food, this promising research demonstrates that capers could be a beneficial addition to a diabetic diet plan.
2. Support Blood Clotting
Capers are a good source of vitamin K, with about 9 percent of the daily recommended intake packed into a single ounce. Vitamin K is essential for several aspects of health. It’s especially important when it comes to blood clotting. In fact, vitamin K is necessary for the function of several proteins involved in the process of coagulation, which is vital for preventing excess bleeding to promote healing and recovery.
3. Relieve Inflammation
Acute inflammation is an important part of the immune response designed to protect the body against disease and infection. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is thought to be at the root of most disease and may contribute to the development of conditions such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
One animal model found that caper fruit extract was able to reduce swelling in mice thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties. Another recent 2018 in vitro study noted that caper berries are high in several key antioxidants, including quercetin, kaempferol, epicatechin and proanthocyanidins. Antioxidants can help fight free radicals to protect cells against oxidative damage to reduce inflammation, aiding in the prevention of chronic disease in the long run.
4. Build Strong Bones
In addition to supporting healthy blood clotting, vitamin K also plays a central role in bone health. This is because vitamin K is involved in bone metabolism and needed to increase levels of a specific protein that helps maintain calcium stores in the bone tissue.
When paired with other vitamin K foods, such as leafy greens, natto and Brussels sprouts, adding capers to your daily diet may help maintain bone health. In fact, a 2003 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that a low intake of vitamin K in the diet was associated with low bone mineral density, making it absolutely vital to squeeze in more servings of vitamin K-rich foods.
5. May Improve Liver Health
Some research has found that daily caper consumption could bring big benefits when it comes to liver health. According to a study published in Advanced Pharmaceutical Bulletin, eating capers daily for 12 weeks was able to decrease disease severity in patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. In particular, eating capers was linked to decreased levels of triglycerides and cholesterol, increased weight loss, and lower levels of alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and aspartate aminotransferase (AST), which are two specific liver enzymes used to measure liver damage.
Although capers are very low in calories, they provide a good amount of several key nutrients. In particular, the capers nutrition profile is high in fiber, sodium and vitamin K — as well as several other micronutrients, such as iron and copper.
One ounce (about 28 grams) of canned capers contains approximately:
- 6.4 calories
- 1.4 grams carbohydrates
- 0.7 gram protein
- 0.2 gram fat
- 0.9 gram dietary fiber
- 6.9 micrograms vitamin K (9 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram copper (5 percent DV)
- 0.5 milligram iron (3 percent DV)
- 1.2 milligrams vitamin C (2 percent DV)
- 6.4 micrograms folate (2 percent DV)
- 9.2 milligrams magnesium (2 percent DV)
Uses in Traditional Medicine
Rich in several key vitamins and minerals, the health benefits and healing properties of capers have been enjoyed in several forms of holistic medicine for centuries.
In Ayurvedic medicine, capers are used to promote, stimulate and preserve liver function. They are also thought to optimize heart health, keep your kidney working efficiently and act as a natural diuretic to promote urine production.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, on the other hand, they are known for their bitter and pungent properties. They are believed to improve blood circulation, remove dampness and decrease water accumulation to support better health.
Where to Find and How to Use
Wondering where to buy capers? They can be found in jarred or canned form at most major grocery stores and are typically sold alongside other canned goods, such as olives and pickles. Specialty types are also available online, including capers food products canned in vinegar or sea salt, as well as freeze-dried varieties.
So what do capers taste like, and what are capers used for? They are often described as having a sharp, salty and slightly tangy taste and aroma, which is why green olives are often used as a substitute for capers given their similarities in taste. Other potential capers substitute options include anchovies, green peppercorns and thyme, all of which can provide a similar flavor profile to dishes.
Capers can be used for many different recipes and bring a unique burst of flavor to salads, sauces, dressings and main dishes. They’re also used in many Italian dishes, such as chicken piccata andspaghetti alla puttanesca. Plus, it can be combined with miso paste and used in a variety of dishes, including glazed salmon, pasta salad and more. What is miso paste? Miso is a salty fermented soybean paste that complements capers perfectly thanks to its rich, umami flavor.
Because capers are typically very high in sodium, it’s generally recommended to soak them for three to five minutes and then rinse them thoroughly using a sieve prior to consumption. This removes excess salt, decreases sodium content and allows their rich flavor to really shine.
There are plenty of capers food options that make it easy to add this tasty ingredient to your daily diet. Here are a few simple capers recipe ideas to help get you started:
- Mediterranean Deviled Eggs
- Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Capers
- Tuna Pasta Salad
- Oven-Baked Creamy Lemon Caper Chicken
- Olive Tapenade
Capers have been used for thousands of years and were once used as a preparation to prevent the buildup of gas in ancient Greece. Additionally, the caper was even around during Biblical times and was mentioned once in the Book of Ecclesiastes. During that time, the caper was said to act as an aphrodisiac to promote libido and sex drive. In fact, the Hebrew word for “caper berry” is actually closely related to the word for “desire.”
Today, the caper is mainly cultivated in certain regions in Morocco, the Iberian Peninsula, Turkey and several Italian islands, including Salina. The buds are typically picked daily in the morning, which is because the smallest, youngest buds are often considered the most valuable.
Capers are still used in many traditional Mediterranean dishes, including spaghetti alla puttanesca and chicken piccata. They are also used to make tartar sauce and are often served alongside cured salmon dishes, such as lox and cream cheese.
Risks and Side Effects
Although capers can be enjoyed as part of a healthy, balanced diet, some people may need to keep their consumption of this flavorful veggie to a minimum.
First of all, while caper allergies are uncommon, they have been reported. If you experience any food allergy symptoms, such as hives, swelling, itching or redness, after consuming capers, discontinue use immediately and consult with your doctor.
Additionally, capers are very high in sodium, and eating just a few ounces can easily put you over your daily limit. Decreasing your consumption of sodium is especially important for those with high blood pressure, and a low-sodium diet is often considered one of the most effective ways to lower blood pressure to optimize heart health. Following a high-sodium diet may also be linked to a higher risk of stomach cancer and may increase calcium excretion through the urine, resulting in bone loss.
To decrease the amount of sodium in each serving of capers, it’s recommended to soak them for three to five minutes and then rinse them thoroughly. Not only does this help remove excess salt and reduce sodium intake, but it also helps bring out their unique flavor and aroma.
- What is a caper? The caper plant is a perennial plant that is native to the Mediterranean, which produces edible flower buds known as the caper.
- Capers are low in calories but contain a good amount of fiber, plus micronutrients like vitamin K, copper and iron.
- They may help stabilize blood sugar, support healthy blood clotting, relieve inflammation, promote bone health and improve liver function.
- They are widely available and can be used in salads, sauces, pasta dishes and dressings.
- Because capers are typically high in sodium, it’s best to soak and rinse them thoroughly before eating to remove excess salt, especially if you have high blood pressure or are following a low-sodium diet.
- For most people, however, they can be enjoyed in moderation as a nutritious part of a well-rounded diet.