This go-to deli garnish contains hidden heart and brain benefits

Located on Manhattan’s upper west side, “The Sturgeon King” Barney Greengrass Delicatessen is a New York institution and one of NYC’s oldest and most well-known eateries. One of their signature dishes, the sturgeon sandwich, is usually topped with pickled capers that add a salty kick to the dish. 

While it’s safe to say most patrons order the dish for its taste above all else, a new study has found that capers also pack some serious health benefits hidden within their small frame. Researchers from The University of California, Irvine have discovered that pickled capers contain a compound that jumpstarts the proteins in our bodies responsible for normal brain and heart activity.

Capers, or the tasty flower buds of the caper bush (Flinders rose), have been a staple of Mediterranean cuisine and modern deli fare for a long, long time. That being said, though, these delicious flavor-filled buds are often overlooked for more popular toppings like olives or traditional pickle slices. This discovery could change all that. The study’s authors say capers may be used in the future as a therapy/treatment option for epilepsy or irregular heart rhythms.

The identified compound in capers, quercetin, has the ability to “directly regulate” proteins in the human body responsible for controlling one’s heartbeat, thoughts, muscle contractions, and thyroid, gastrointestinal, and pancreas functions. Some pretty important processes to say the least.

This discovery was made in the laboratory of Geoffrey Abbott, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine. 

The compound quercetin, which is a plant-derived bioflavonoid, can modulate and control potassium ion channels in the body belonging to the KCNQ gene family. Ion channels, in general, are a type of protein found in cell membranes that facilitate the movement of various ions in and out of cells (potassium, sodium, etc). 

KCNQ channels specifically focus on the transport of potassium and have a big impact on overall human health. For example, KCNQ channel malfunctions have been linked to a host of health problems like diabetes, epilepsy, and heart arrhythmia.

The quercetin found in capers influence KCNQ channels by directly regulating the detection of electrical activity in the cell – consequently controlling the movement of potassium in and out of cells.

“Now that we understand how quercetin controls KCNQ channels,” professor Abbott comments in a release, “future medicinal chemistry studies can be pursued to create and optimize quercetin-related small molecules for potential use as therapeutic drugs.”

Further experiments performed at professor Abbott’s lab showed that just 1% pickled caper extract can activate potassium ion channels integral to normal heart and brain functioning. 

Additionally, the research team identified the molecular mechanism behind this effect; quercetin attaches itself to the area of the KCNQ channel responsible for electrical activity responses. This action on the quercetin’s part actually tricks the potassium ion channels to open when they should be closed.

“Increasing the activity of KCNQ channels in different parts of the body is potentially highly beneficial,” professor Abbott explains. “Synthetic drugs that do this have been used to treat epilepsy and show promise in preventing abnormal heart rhythms.”

While capers are usually considered nothing more than toppings for a morning bagel or slice of smoked salmon these days, the study’s authors were quick to point out that they aren’t the first humans to identify capers’ health benefits. Capers have been used as a therapeutic medicine for thousands of years, dating back to ancient Greece.

The full study can be found here, published in Communications Biology.