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I know. There are probably about 120 items on your priority list above “spices”. Afterall, the amount of spice you consume isn’t as significant as the produce or proteins. I hadn’t given it much thought, but I’ve gradually been choosing organic spices in the store when it’s time to replace something. I decided to see if organic spices and herbs are really worth the organic price tag.
Did you know?
12% of imported spices tested positive for salmonella? (FYI- over 60% of all spices in the US are imported.)
In the US, there have been fourteen documented outbreaks caused by contaminated spices since 1973, accounting for 1,900 hospitalizations.
20% of your spice blends don’t have to be spice. It can contain filler, sugar, additives, or “filth” including hair, dirt, poop, and bugs. “Thanks, FDA!” she said sarcastically.
How are conventional spices manufactured?
Salmonella? Filth? Outbreaks? Even though we don’t consume a high volume of spice, the concerns listed only take a little bit to affect your body in a big way. When conventionally raised, a spice is grown with the assistance of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Then it is harvested and stored before packaging and shipping. Before entering the US, law requires that all imported spices be sterilized in one of three ways: chemical fumigation, irradiation (gamma radiation), or steam.
Chemical fumigation using ethylene oxide is one of the most common methods. So, naturally, ethylene oxide is totally safe, since it’s coming in contact with our food, right? Nope. In fact, OSHA states that ethylene oxide is carcinogenic, causing leukemia and other cancers (based on animal and HUMAN studies). Granted, a residual amount of ethylene oxide on your spices is not going to guarantee cancer, but if there’s a safer alternative, wouldn’t you choose it?
Irradiation is used to kill microorganisms, fungi, and insects in your spices using gamma radiation, which is handy because it permeates all packaging too. Is it safe? Not really. There are two big concerns with radiation treatment of our food: 1) Radiolytic change- a degradation of the food’s chemical structure. 2) Free radical byproducts- alkanes, alkenes, aldehydes, alkylcyclobutones (ACB’s) and ortho- and meta-tyrosine. [Source] Free radicals are strongly linked to cancer. Irradiated foods are banned in Europe but still legal in the US. Again…is there enough to guarantee cancer? No, but if there’s a better option, I’m taking it!
Steam sterilization is, fortunately, as simple as it sounds. The spice is exposed to ultra hot doses of steam to kill off any pathogens. It’s simply hot water. This sounds like the best option to me.
After your spice has been sterilized, it’s packaged and makes its way to your kitchen. If you’re buying a proprietary spice blend, the manufacturer does not have to share the recipe with the FDA, and may label several ingredients collectively as “spices”. These “spices” could be anything: sugar, salt, artificial flavorings, MSG, food dyes, bulking agents, anti-caking agents, silica…anything.
What do “organic” spices guarantee?
Are organic spices any better? Here’s what a certified organic spice guarantees:
Organic growing practices – no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, non-GMO seeds, non-irradiated seeds
Manufacturing – no chemical sterilization or irradiation, only steam sterilization.
Hey, guess what the FDA found in your spices?
On the FDA’s site, I found an interesting report: “Foodborne Illness Outbreaks from Microbial Contaminants in Spices 1973-2010”. This analysis looks at all the illness outbreaks that were traced back to contaminated spices. Besides finding salmonella in about 12% of imported spices, the FDA also found:
Whole and part insects: mites, beetles, moths, ants, weevils
Hair: human, bat, cow, cat, dog, mouse, rat, rabbit, sheep
“Other”: staples, rubber bands, wood slivers, stones, twigs, paper, plastic, dirt, mold, feathers, bird barbs…and poop. Lots of poop (bird poop, mammal poop, insect poop).
Have you ever found anything in your spices that didn’t belong there? I remember finding some small bugs in a bottle of paprika once.
Shopping for Spices
Ready to clean up your spice rack? Spices are already pretty pricey per pound, so you might as well pay a little more to make sure you’re getting a quality product. Here are a few tips to help get you started without feeling overwhelmed:
Learn about the organic brands. The “organic” label tells you its chemical and radiation-free, but there are a lot of other factors that can still affect its integrity. One brand I researched, Frontier Natural Product Co-op, was very forthcoming with its quality standards. I’ve seen their products in the grocery store and on Amazon for a great price.
Shop the bulk section. If your grocery store offers bulk spices, you can buy just a little bit at a time and cut the cost. Since spices only last 6-12 months, buying smaller quantities of the spices you rarely use keeps the pantry overhaul affordable.
Skip the blends. Pre-made spice blends like pumpkin pie spice, allspice, taco seasoning, or Italian seasoning are simply a mix of other staple spices. Invest in the staples and make your own blends as needed.
Go whole. Want a bug-free guarantee? Buy whole spices not pre-ground spices and grind your own. You can buy a dedicated spice grinder ($18) or a multi-purpose microplane zester ($15). Freshly ground spices are more potent, and you’ll end up using a lot less!
Grow your own. I can’t grow anything in my garden, but I can usually manage a small harvest of some herbs: basil, rosemary, thyme, and oregano. These plants are small and grow well in patio containers. I use them fresh when I can, but they dry easily too. When I have more than I can use, I wash the fresh herbs and hang them to dry (or use a food dehydrator). Once dried, you can store them in glass jars.
Do you have any other tips for buying organic spices at a great price?
We’ll continue looking at seasonings and explore the world of salt! Iodized, sea salt, pink salt, light salt, real salt…what are the differences? Is there a better choice?
The is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.