Go to your spice rack, make a kale smoothie, have a cup of coffee. Just about everything we use to add flavor to our lives comes from a co-evolutionary battle between an herbivore and a plant protecting its leaves.
That bite on your tongue from an arugula salad? The sulfur-containing cyanide molecules you taste are the result of glucosinolates, a characteristic defense of the mustard plant family. Mustard plants—e.g. horseradish, wasabi, mustard—all use this metabolic pathway because the burning sensation, which many people enjoy with oysters, actually works as an effective anti-herbivore toxic defense. When bugs break open cells, the enzyme myrosinase cuts a precursor to release nitriles, isothiocyanates, and other various bioactive toxic compounds. Plants in a population that are slightly more toxic survive the constant herbivore attack better and can pass on their genes to the next generation. Ah, bittersweet natural selection.
How do we know it is the bugs that put the pressure on? This paper (also summarized in a great article here) swapped mustard plants from Colorado and Montana, and found that not only did the unique spice of each plant stay consistent, but bugs preferred the visiting treat—plants that did not adapt to the local suite of herbivores. The difference in plant survival in this case is an example of local adaptation, all starting from bugs preferring the new mustard spice.
Just like these bugs and everything else in nature, we choose what we eat based on the flavors we like and what won’t kill us.
So why do we intentionally eat so many compounds plants use to make feeding difficult? Often these same toxins are essential for nutrition. The darkest green vegetables, pungent garlic, soothing mint—all play a health benefit role because of the energy plants put into making defense compounds. Bioactive toxins in low doses continue to do their toxic, bad-self thing: the alkaloid caffeine in your coffee stimulates the nervous system, the indole-3-carbinole in your kale salad degrades excess hormones that can lead to cancer, and the terpenes in oak barrel-aged wine rich in phenolic tannins can prevent carcinogens from binding to DNA and reduce the risk of harmful blood clots. The underlying theme here is that many toxins are reactive, for better or for worse.
Disclaimer: Some plant defenses are toxic to humans in high concentrations, and some plants are just plain poisonous at any dose. Don’t start eating everything toxic. Instead, appreciate the nutrients plants invest in creating highly reactive compounds in order to protect themselves, as well as the coevolutionary arms race that made plants with these exciting products succeed.