I received this e-mail over the weekend:
What’s up with organic spices?
If you have been near the spice racks at your local grocery store, you’ve probably seen a section for organic spices. They look just the same, but tend to be in nicer glass bottles and are marked with a higher price tag.
What goes into that higher price? Let’s find out by examining the various stages of spice production.
Spices are imported from all corners of the globe. This usually goes against traditional locavore philosophy, but the spice trade has been around for ages and you don’t need much of it to get by. Well-kept spices will last a long time, unlike those Fijian apples that magically arrive in your grocery market all throughout winter.
Just like the coffee trade, spice farmers tend to be from under-developed nations and are easy to exploit. Fair trade certification for spices has recently become popular, and organic companies have been organizing around a common sense of moral obligation to justly compensate the farmers.
Before being bottled and shipped to grocery stores, the spice needs to be sterilized. Major manufacturers use traditional methods like irradiation (literally, shooting radioactive particles at the crop) and fumigation (exposing the product to harmful, carcinogenic gas). Irradiation and fumigation are common because they are inexpensive to employ, and the cheap spices on the shelf probably went one of these routes.
There is a third, more expensive way to sterilize spices: steam. Steam technology, though complicated, offers none of the carcinogenic drawbacks of irradiation and fumigation. Unfortunately, manufacturers don’t usually disclose how they sterilized their spices.
Luckily, the organic label is here to save the day. I asked Frontier Natural Products Co-op, the makers of “Simply Organic” (you’ve probably seen some of their products at your grocery store) about spice sterilization and here is their response:
The key methods of sterilization of spices in the non-organic industry are irradiation and ethylene oxide treatment. Irradiation has enough of a negative connotation in consumers minds that it is almost never labeled when used in food products, and generally does not require disclosure. Ethylene oxide treatment also does not have to be disclosed on treated products. However, one by-product of it’s application is the formation of ethyl chlorohydrin, a carcinogen, which is formed in high levels in some spices as they are treated. For example, as of February of this year, the FDA has banned it’s use on basil, since the reside of the carcinogenic compound approaches 1000 parts per million or 1 part per thousand.
At Frontier, for sterilization we only use steam – which is essentially super heated water used to kill microbes. Of the 3 methods discussed, it is the only allowable method in organic production. The application technology of steam treatment is quite sophisticated, since the need to maximize the flavor attributes while destroying microbes is essential. While the process is currently outsourced by Frontier, we are in the process of implementing our own steam sterilization unit at a cost of approximately $1 Million, and will be fully operational early next year. We believe it is an important piece of our food safety commitment and the control gained by having this in-house is important as the technology is becoming more widespread. It also allows us to service our customers with the highest quality products possible.
Basically, organic spices are the only option that are guaranteed to have been through steam sterilization.
Standard spices may throw in additive fillers, artificial colors, and artificial flavors. This is pretty easy to check on as the ingredient list will reveal the presence of these non-food elements, but if you buy organic spices then you have a label guarantee to that effect.
One other thing you may notice: inexpensive spices come in dinky plastic bottles. This makes them feel literally cheaper, and they have an additional downside of using BPA-laden plastic (unless they’ve recently adopted BPA-free plastic). Glass bottles are free from the presence of BPA. Just another aspect to consider.
Organic spices are different than your run-of-the-mill spices for three major reasons:
- Use organically (free of chemical pesticides and fertilizers) grown crops as raw material.
- Tend to use fair-trade certified crop importation, making sure the farmer is paid a just wage for his effort.
- Sterilized by way of steam, which is more expensive but without the downside of irradiation or fumigation.
To the writer of the e-mail which prompted this exploration I can safely say, “Yes! There are many things “up” with organic spices.”
To anyone considering the difference between organic spices and regular spices, hopefully this article has provided some valuable information to digest. As consumers, we don’t typically get to see how products like these are made. When we peel away those layers of wool, the difference between one mode of production and another becomes obvious.
Buying organic spice is a small part of day-to-day life, but one that might help you sleep better at night.
Acknowledgments: My many thanks to Frontier Natural Products Co-op’s Steve Krusie (Director of Public Relations) and Ravin Donald, PhD (VP of Quality Assurance and Research & Development) for helping me on this topic.