jars of caper berries and Cento capote capers in sea salt

Capers vs Caper Berries: Their Difference & Health Benefits

[toc]Caper berries and capers both come from the same Mediterranean plant; Capparis spinosa. The difference is that capers are the early flower buds, while the berries are what forms after they have bloomed and been pollinated.

Nonpareil is the classification given for the smallest size of capers. They’re about the size of a pea. The dark green berries are much larger; at least one inch long and a half-inch in diameter. So they’re easier to hold, an inch or so of the stem is left on.

Whether it’s the buds or the berries, most of this crop comes from Morocco, Turkey, Spain, and Italy. Outside of those regions it’s hard to grow, which partly explains why they can be expensive.

Capers don’t come from the nasturtium plant. Native to South and Central America, this genus of flowers does produce buds that look like them, but they’re not the same thing. They’re called “poor man’s caper” because you can eat all parts of the nasturtium and many people do.

Back to the real deal…

What do they taste like?

As with olives, they can be raw but they’re never sold fresh. They’re always pickled in brine.

Due to the soaking in brine, capers are salty and have the bite of vinegar. The flavor of the buds is pungent, with floral and citrus undertones. Many consider capers to be an acquired taste.

what the inside of a caper berry looks like

Caper berries taste like capers, but milder. Their pungency and floral flavor is subdued and typically, less salt is used in their solution. Inside an average berry you will find over one hundred tiny seeds. Since they have marinated for months or years, these seeds are soft and instantly pop when chewed. This creates a distinctly different texture when compared to capers, olives, or any other pickled plant.

Their pungent smell and taste comes from isothiocyanates, which are the same class of compounds found in mustard, radish, wasabi, and coincidentally, the poor man’s nasturtium caper.

What are they used for?

Any savory dish that could use a kick of salt and tang is a candidate for capers. Common uses include pasta sauces of almost any type but particularly puttanesca, topping for pizza, zesty salads, steamed lentils, roasted potatoes, fish like halibut and salmon, herb crusted lamb, braised chicken, and many recipes with butter, garlic, and lemon. Those flavors mesh well with them.

closeup of what capers look like

You don’t cook with capers, as they are added at or near the end.

Caper berries are less acidic and have a milder flavor than capers, which makes them edible on their own much like olives and pickles. Their most common uses are as a garnish, particularly in dirty martinis and other alcoholic drinks. Caper berry gravy is the most mainstream recipe. It was inspired by a line in the movie Bridget Jones’s Diary. People concoct something with the berries, broth and butter, for use on omelets, chicken, and other meats. There’s no official recipe from the movie.

Where to buy?

new Trader Joe's jars on shelfIn the United States, Canada, and Europe, you are likely to find jarred capers at almost any supermarket. They’re not a specialty food that requires a trip to Whole Foods. Unless you want organic. In that case, they’re tougher to find. Walmart, Publix, and Albertsons may not have them.

A reliable place where you can buy pickled caper berries is at liquor stores. The higher-end ones will carry them, since used in martinis and other drink recipes. There’s a good chance that you will also be able to find them for sale at a well-stocked, large grocery store.

Their popularity is increasing.

Trader Joe’s has sold capers for as long as one can remember. It wasn’t until 2017 when they started selling caper berries in a jar.

Nutrition facts compared

organic non-pareil capers and caper berries

They’re wild non-pareil capers that are “sunkissed in the Mediterranean.” Both are USDA certified organic. Certainly these must be healthy for you, right?

It turns out that both capers and caper berries are bad for you to eat in excess due to their Achilles’ heel… sodium content.

Naturally, they are almost salt-free. Due to the brining process, heavy amounts are added for preservation and flavor enhancement.

As with all black, green, and Kalamata olives, you would never recognize their taste if you were to try them before that process.

labels showing nutrition facts for capers and caper berries

Keep in mind that the listed portion size of caper berries (30g) is nearly twice that of nonpareil capers (16g). When you adjust for equal weights of each, they’re equally naughty:

  • 30g of capers (about 2 Tbsp) = 656 mg of sodium
  • 30g of caper berries (qty of 5) = 700 mg of sodium

How insane is that?

Well consider that the American Heart Association recommends you stay under 1,500 mg per day. So basically, if you ate that amount for either, you have already reached half your limit for a 24 hour period! (1)

Of course, in all fairness, most processed foods these days have out of control sodium content, right?

So let’s compare them to what’s perceived to be the worst… fast food.

Here’s how much salt there is in a large order of McDonald’s fries, straight from their corporate website:

nutrition facts for McDonald's fries

290 mg for an entire large order of fries.

That means if you eat just one serving of 5 caper berries, you’ve eaten more sodium than the equivalent of 2 large orders of fries!

There’s no such thing as low salt olives. As with them, it’s essential to rinse off capers and their berries before eating. It will reduce the sodium to a degree, though it will remain high. Due to the way they have been marinated for long periods of time, it’s impossible to wash out what they have absorbed.

On the bright side, both are guilt-free foods for weight loss at only 5 to 10 calories per serving. They’re good for diabetics since they’re sugar free.

In the nutrition facts above, you may have noticed the capers listed 0g of protein, while the caper berries listed 1g per serving. In actuality, their density of protein and carbs is comparable, as the different values have more to do with serving size and rounding.

For proof, just look at the berries. They list 1g of protein AND 1g of carbs for a total of 5 calories.

That’s scientifically impossible.

Both protein and carbs are 4 calories per gram. If there was literally 1g of each, at bare minimum, the calorie count would need to be 8 instead of 5.

Those labeling quirks happen when working with small numbers.

For a more accurate answer on protein density, turn to the USDA National Nutrient Database and their entry for capers. They list the values per tablespoon as well as per 100g (which is 3.5 oz). The latter is just 23 calories and contains 2.36g of protein. (2)

Since 2.36g of protein equals 9.44 calories, that means capers are up to 40% protein!

That 100g amount also offers 12% of the daily value for fiber, 8% for magnesium, and 7% for vitamin C. However when it comes to vitamins and minerals, only trace amounts will be present in each given the serving sizes. You should view them as having none for all intents and purposes.

Unfortunately the USDA does not have a Standard Reference entry for the berries.

Health benefits of capers and caper berries

Trader Joe's capers and caper berries on plate

These potential benefits remain unproven, as they are observations from preliminary research.

1. Highest dietary source of quercetin

Quercetin is an antioxidant best known for its anti-inflammatory properties. (3)

In addition to inflammation it’s also being studied for asthma and anti-aging, by altering gene expression in a way that’s similar to calorie restriction. (4) (5)

If you look at a list of the richest quercetin foods, you will find the Capparis spinosa buds on the very top. They have hundreds of percent more than any other common food source.

2. Suppresses inflammation

Quercetin isn’t the only compound that might be doing this.

Inappropriate CD4+ T cell response plays a part in many inflammatory diseases including multiple sclerosis (MS), atopic dermatitis, chronic allergic inflammation, type 1 diabetes, and ulcerative colitis. (6)

Caper extract was found to help regulate inflammation by altering how CD4+ T cells responded in a specialized Swiss mice model (they had contact hypersensitivity). (7)

3. Diverse source of antioxidants

Quercetin, kaempferol, and rutin are the main antioxidants found in capers and caper berries. There are numerous types of phenolic compounds, flavonoids, carotenoids, tocopherols, and terpenes that also contribute to their antioxidant activity. (8) (9)

Scientists have even discovered an antioxidant that is unique to the plant;  4-hydroxy-5-methylfuran-3-carboxylic acid, 1. (10)

4. May lower blood sugar

Accucheck diabetes blood glucose test stripsWhat did Jesus eat? To claim he ate the buds or berries would be a presumption, because there’s no specific mention of them in the New Testament.

While it may or may not be related to eating, the caper berry is mentioned in passing within the Old Testament, in Ecclesiastes 12:5. Even though it may not be a specific food listed in the Bible, it was eaten in the Mediterranean region, no doubt.

In Israel, the plant has been used for a long time in traditional medicinal uses for diabetes. (11)

Only during the past couple decades are scientists starting to discover that indeed, there might really be a blood sugar lowering effect. This has been observed in numerous animal studies. (12) (13)

In Iran, a randomized human clinical trial was conducted with 54 patients who had type 2 diabetes. Split between two groups, half received 400 mg of caper supplements (fruit extract in capsules) while the other half were given a placebo. (14)

They reported:

“Results showed significant decrease in fasting blood glucose levels and glycosylated hemoglobin in caper treated patients compared to control group at the end of the study. Triglyceride level also decreased significantly in caper treated group at the end of the study compared to baseline. No liver, kidney and other side effects were observed in these two groups.”

5. Anti-allergy

Given its anti-inflammatory potential, it’s no surprise that researchers have seen benefits for allergy sufferers, too. As part of a nutraceutical treatment, it was found to reduce allergic biomarkers, such as CD63 protein and sulphidoleukotrienes (SLT) production. (15)

In a guinea pig model, an antihistamine effect was observed when caper extract was given. (16)

If these suspected advantages are for real, this plant could be useful for asthma in two ways; anti-inflammatory and blocking histamines.

Speaking of allergies…

Can you be allergic to capers?

Yes, but fortunately a food allergy to caper is extremely rare. Only a couple patient case studies have been published to date. Since the brine contains vinegar, it is possible that those who have a sensitively to sulfites may experience related reactions. Fermentation naturally creates sulfites, so you also consume them with apple cider vinegar, wine, and pickled foods. (17) (18)

6. Liver protectant

In capers and caper berries you will find p-Anisic acid, also known as 4-methoxybenzoic acid or draconic acid. It’s known for having antiseptic qualities. (19)

In animal research where they were given a liver poison, this p-Anisic acid was said to “possess significant antihepatotoxic activity.” That word means protecting against liver damage. Or at least it appeared to.

What’s fascinating about this study is that it points out a potential compound in the plant that might help with liver health, which is different than the usual antioxidants cited. (20)

7. Neuroprotectant

When rats were poisoned, there was less neurodegeneration in the brain’s hippocampus region for the group treated with this plant. Similar results were seen in a mouse model of cognitive impairment. (21) (22)

Perhaps most intriguing was the Alzheimer’s disease rat study. As seen in human cases of the disease, they created amyloid plaque deposits in the rats’ brains using injections.

For the rats that were given the C. spinosa extract treatment, there was a positive change seen in what are believed to be genes that promote brain inflammation during Alzheimer’s. They were downregulated, meaning they were expressed less, so there was less inflammation that resulted. (23)

8. Cancer research

scientist conducting experiment in Petri dishOut of the 100+ medical citations in the PubMed database, only a few are related to cancer, which is a small amount compared to many other plants.

Though it is worth mentioning that anti-proliferative effects have been seen in cultured human gastric/stomach cancer cells and a colon carcinoma cell line when exposed to minute concentrations of caper bush extracts. One experiment used an essential oil made from the plant. (24) (25) (26)

9. May protect heart during chemo

Doxorubicin, which is sold under the brand name Adriamycin, is one of the most common chemotherapy medications. Unfortunately it has dangerous side effect of heart damage (dilated cardiomyopathy) which can even lead to congestive heart failure (CHF).

In a model using cultured heart cells, when pre-treated with tiny amounts of caper extract, there was less cell damage seen from the doxorubicin. (27)

10. Antibacterial

Similar to cancer, there’s really not much research on its potential for antibiotic-like effects on pathogenic bacteria. One lab study found it inhibited the growth of H. pylori bacteria, which are a major cause of stomach infections worldwide. (28)

11. Antiviral

Lab research has reported that extract of capers appears to interfere with the replication of herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). They speculate this was due to upregulation of genes related to cytokine production. (29)

12. Studied for scleroderma

Progressive systemic scleroderma, also known as CREST syndrome, is an autoimmune disease where the body creates too much of the hard connective tissue. This results in thickening of the skin and injuries to the arteries caused by excess type 1 collagen. That’s the same of collagen that causes scars to become callus.

Using an ethanol extract of the plant, researchers at a Chinese university reported that it…

“…could significantly inhibit the proliferation of fibroblast and reduced the expression of alpha2 (I) collagen mRNA and type I collagen protein in progressive systemic sclerosis in a dose-and time-dependent manner. ECS [the extract] did not affect the proliferation of fibroblast and expression of type I collagen mRNA and protein in normal human.”

If this is really happening, the unidentified compound(s) in the plant might serve as a candidate for drug development if they can be isolated. (30)

Verdict: Are they healthy or not?

With the exception of the added salt, both capers and caper berries are good for you. They have almost no calories and are of very low risk for food allergies and other side effects. Antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds like quercetin may offer health benefits.

Even though the research appears promising, keep in mind it remains unproven and therefore, these foods or supplements made from them should NOT be used for any disease/condition.

rinsing brine off caper berries before eating

The best way to eat them is soaking ahead of time, followed by rinsing with cold water, in order to remove as much salt as possible. If you’re curious, the above strainer came from this 3 size set on Amazon.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.