The Flesh-Eating Pineapple

It’s Historical Popularity… and the Next Cancer Treatment?


Firstly… some interesting pineapple history that I bet (most) of you didn’t know (unless you have read a pineapple history or listened to series one, episode two of the podcast ‘The museum of curiosity’ *).

The pineapple was originally from Brazil (though there are different varieties from elsewhere). The pineapple was spread by natives around South America and eventually to the Caribbean and the Indies – which is where the famous Christopher Columbus discovered it in 1493 and brought it home to Europe.

The pineapple did not make it to England until the 1600s, and it became a HIT in the 1700s. Everything was made in pineapple shapes and painted with pineapples. It was THE status symbol! – If you had a pineapple under your arm in the 1700s… WELL, you were just the richest, coolest kid on the block. I am speaking literally though. People quite seriously took a pineapple to parties to show off, carrying it around for weeks until the pineapple started rot. You could even rent a pineapple for an evening.

Pineapples were expensive too. They cost about 5000 pounds each (around $8000AUD) by today’s standards – OR the cost of a new coach. You can just picture an 18th century gentleman weighing it up:

“new coach… or pineapple… hmm”.

Initially you had to grow them yourself, but this was a very difficult and expensive endeavour in an English climate. The pineapples would be grown in hot pits and boys would be payed to sit and sleep in them – just in case the pit caught on fire.

A Victorian pineapple pit. Source:


When eating fresh and delicious pineapple… I have often wondered why it leaves my tongue feeling like I just took to it with sandpaper… Allergic? No.

This is a common phenomenon. You can find complaints in forums all over the internet of sore and even bleeding tongues, gums and lips after eating pineapple.

Pineapple is the only known source in nature of the enzyme Bromelain. Bromelain actually digest proteins… so when you eat pineapple. It’s essentially eating you back! But don’t worry, once you swallow the pineapple the acids in your stomach destroy the enzymes.

It is also often suggested that workers in pineapple fields have no fingerprints because the bromelain in the pineapple wears them away. I’m not certain that this is true, but theoretically it could occur over time. What I do know is that it’s used as a meat tenderiser, and that if you leave it on the meat too long it will just turn to mush.

Pineapple field in Ghana. Source:

Despite eating your mouth, bromelain has become recognised for its health benefits and is useful in medical treatments for a number of ailments and diseases. For starters it is part of an approved treatment for inflammation and swelling, particularly after surgery and it has been proposed  for treating a number of other inflammation based disorders including osteoarthritis, autoimmune diseases and viral infections. It is also useful for removing damaged and infected tissues from burn wounds.

More recent research has pointed at its potential use in cancer treatments. A few preclinical studies (that is; early research not yet tested in humans) have indicated that it has antitumor properties and, for instance has been found to stimulate death of breast and ovarian cancer cells. One study tested the effects of bromelain on breast cancer and found evidence that women who were given bromelain (just swallowed) started producing cells that targeted and killed breast cancer cells.

However, more study in humans and on how to apply treatments will need to be conducted before bromelain can be applied to cancer treatments.

Moral of the story: Eat pineapple!

My question is however… why does the pineapple have bromelain? What is it’s purpose to a pineapple plant? Sadly I have not found the answer. If you know what/where it is please comment.

Great medical reference: Chobotova, K; Vernallis, AB; Majid, FAA (2010). Bromelain’s activity and potential as an anti-cancer agent: Current evidence and perspectives. Cancer Letters. 290/2 P148-156

* I highly recommend these podcasts. They’re full of comedians, scientists and other interesting people, providing thoughts, stories, histories, random facts and some nonsense. They can be downloaded from iTunes.

12 Responses to “The Flesh-Eating Pineapple”

  1. Angela says:

    This is a very interesting article. Freaks me out, but good stuff!

  2. Pinky says:

    Can u share some pineapple’s defense system??? (school work)
    seems u knew pineapple very well!!!
    U R fantastic pineapple explorer!!

  3. S.H.W. says:

    Ebony: Good idea but only problem with that is that you’d want the seed coats to break down after it left the pineapple and maybe not when it was sitting inside it…?

    I had a look in web of knowledge but couldn’t find any specific studies. Like with any fruit, I would think it would make you sick if you had too much (besides bromelain – there are a lot of acids too), not sure how it may effect your health more specifically though.
    A woman who wrote a history on the pineapple was a guest on the ‘the museum of curiosity’ podcast I mentioned above – and she did say that she’d heard of / found out about a death in the 1700s that was due to eating too much pineapple. (Probably showing off how rich they were by eating as much pineapple as they could).
    Bromelain can actually be absorbed into the blood stream from the stomach… which is how it’s used in medicine. I do not know why it doesn’t just break down your whole system once its in there but apparently its quite safe and helpful even

  4. Sid says:

    Very interesting to know that when I’m eating a pineapple, it’s trying to eat me too. Pretty cool how bromelain is derived from the stem, commercially, as that’s one of my fav parts of the pineapple! Dip it in a bit of salt, DELICIOUS!

    Dave: I’m sure there are companies that can chemically engineer a pineapple flavour and simply add it to protein bars! Or even Whey perhaps?

    Makes me want to eat a pineapple now..

  5. S.H.W. says:

    Dave: haha maybe, but you could just destroy the enzyme by heating it before adding it to protein bars. Same goes with deserts that have cream or gelatin. if you put fresh pineapple in jelly, the jelly won’t set.

  6. Ebony says:

    Do pineapple seeds have thick seed coats? Perhaps the bromelain helps break down the coats?
    On another note, have you found any research stating too much pineapple can be harmful?

  7. S.H.W. says:

    Tash: To tenderise your meat (mentioned above): you can buy it in a powder form that you sprinkle over a piece of meat. No other uses that I am aware of. But other parts of the pineapple are used to produce textile fibres like ‘Piña’. It’s used a lot in the Phillipeans.

    Jim: I couldn’t find anything in the literature suggesting bromelain as a defence against insects. The pineapple has a pretty defensive outside, but i guess it is possible if its preventing some kind of burrowing insect? It’s most common attackers are smaller mammals and boars, and I assume most of these play a role in seed dispersal. Perhaps the bromelain protects the seeds somehow?

  8. Jim says:

    Is there any evidence that Bromelain can digest chitin from insect exoskeletons or mammalian teeth?
    I’m wondering whether it’s purpose is for preventing herbivory. I think grasses do this with silicon crystals that erode the mandibles or teeth of herbivorous animals over time. Ants have magnesium and other metals in their mandibles to reduce wear, but this would probably be ineffective against chemical decomposition.

  9. Tash says:

    Fascinating! I always wondered why my tongue tingled afterwards, I thought I had an allergy like most people that you mentioned in your post!

    I have to day though, not a fan of my food trying to eat me back 😉

    Are there any uses for Bromelain that are not medical? Aside from as a status symbol of course (that seems so crazy!!)

  10. Dave says:

    Completely explains why I’ve never been able to find pineapple flavoured protein bars.

  11. S.H.W. says:

    As of yet there have been no conclusions about using Bromelain in treatments, perhaps there hasn’t been a complete study on humans as of yet or they haven’t completed studies on any potential side effects and how Bromelain may interact with other medications.
    However, there is still plenty of evidence that Bromelain is a useful anti-inflammatory agent for arthritis and other inflammatory disorders/infections etc.

    I am no medical doctor. In fact I study Plants :). Therefore I do not wish to pretend I can give your grandmother medical advice. But… if I had arthritis and wanted to take Bromelain as a treatment… I probably would take it as a supplement and not eat loads of pineapple. As I mentioned above… too much pineapple can make your mouth sting and bleed, so a supplement would allow you to have higher doses without that happening.

    Here is a great review of clinical studies that tested bromelain as an arthritis treatment:

  12. Tina says:

    Very interesting read!!! Fascinating – do you know if doctors have recommended bromelain (through the consumption of pineapples) for patients? Perhaps in older people with arthritis! I think I might have to encourage my grandmother to eat more pineapple!!