Featured Image for Spices – More Than a Matter of Taste

Eating food without spices would certainly change a lot of cookbooks. The history of spices and cooking goes back millennia.  Today, more spices are available to more people than ever, and the market just keeps on growing.

Spices are big business, very big business. The US is the largest importer of spices in the world, with retail sales near $3.8 billion in 2010.  We import about 40 percent of our spices from more than 50 countries, but more than 65 percent of those imports come from just five countries: Indonesia, India, Vietnam, China and Brazil.

By volume, the top five spices imported to the US are dried capsicum peppers of various types, mustard seed, black and white pepper, sesame seed and ginger root.

We are getting more and more questions at Food Sentry about the safety of spices and any risks associated with them, and we can see why.  The amount of spice in the US amounts to more than three pounds per person at any given time, and that number is going up.

Risks and safety elements

Contaminated spices do represent enough of a risk to the consumer that you should be wary and aware.  Spices, especially those dried and bottled, are often kept in the household for months or even years before they are used up or discarded.  The bacterial contaminant most often seen in spices, salmonella, can survive the dry, dark and sealed environment of most spices surprisingly well.

While most people think of salmonella and other bacterial contaminants, other threats to spices include pesticides and toxic metal contamination, with pesticide contamination being far more common than salmonella.  We recently reported on curry leaves from India being contaminated with violative levels of the pesticides acephate and acetamiprid.  Acephate is widely used in agriculture and has been identified as a cholinesterase inhibitor, a suspected endocrine disruptor and a possible carcinogen.  Chronic consumption of such a product should be cause for concern.

Cryptic contamination with spices has been a cause of food recalls in the past, as in the case of prepared meats and sausages that cause illness that were spiced with contaminated pepper during the production process.

Spices also have a high incidence of adulteration. Studies and testing routinely find substitution in spices, from dung in coriander powder, to sumac leaves in oregano, to coffee husks in cinnamon. Research in England discovered that perhaps 90 percent of saffron sold in the country is not saffron.  If the spice is adulterated with an allergen (chili powder with almond shells is one example), then illness may result.

As we have pointed out before, country of origin is something that must be considered when making any food purchase.  Conditions under which imported spices are grown and processed vary spectacularly across different countries, and the regulatory structures in place often have a very limited capability to improve the situation.  Growing, processing and packaging conditions are very often uncontrolled among the very large number of family farmers that represent a large percentage of the initial supply.

Traditional methods such as sun-drying or oven-drying frequently result in inconsistent drying of the product. Lack of storage infrastructure often means the harvest sits out in the open with no climate control.  Mold and fungal growth and bacterial contamination are regular outcomes of such practices.

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There is a very large worldwide body of scientific literature examining the uptake of toxic metal contaminants in agricultural products, including spices.  The most frequently occurring contaminants are lead, arsenic, chromium and cadmium. Our continuing review of this literature indicates that certain areas are more prone than others to produce spices with heavy metal contamination.  Causes of this type of contamination have a great deal to do with the co-location of agriculture with manufacturing, smelting and/or mining operations, as well as the use of contaminated irrigation water.

In the past year alone, the US FDA has refused import of more than 860 shipments of spices to the US from all over the world and currently has in place dozens of import alerts for a large variety of spices.  Reasons for the refusals and alerts include: shigella contamination; salmonella; botulinum toxin; lead; filth; mammalian excreta; insect parts; foreign objects; and decomposition. Not good.

And keep in mind that the FDA inspects and tests less than one-half of 1 percent of all food imports.

The news isn’t all bad

As always, there is at least one more side to the story.  Spices have been used for centuries as medicinals of one sort or another, and research increasingly identifies more ways in which spices can be aids to better health.  Cinnamon helps control blood sugar; turmeric can be a useful adjunct in the treatment of hypothyroidism and possibly help reduce cholesterol; the phenols in cloves can reduce the glycation associated with elevated sugar levels.  Very many spices are high in antioxidants and exhibit anti-inflammatory effects.  They can be good, natural and cheap ways to help address a variety of health concerns.

What we advise

First, understand the type and scale of the actual risk.  For spices, the primary concerns should be contamination with violative levels of pesticides or the presence of salmonella.  By far, these are the two most common problems.

Second, not all spices are equally likely to have these problems.  Black and white pepper and the dried capsicum peppers such as habanero, jalapeño, guajillo, poblano, and various other chilies represent the most likely spices to be contaminated, based on testing histories both here and abroad.

Third, country of origin makes a difference.  US-produced spices, especially those organically grown, are likely to be the least risky.  Spices from India and China are most likely to be contaminated with toxic metals.  Pesticide residues are almost always present on non-organic foods, regardless of country of origin, but violative levels are most likely to be seen from Mexico, China, Pakistan and India.

Fourth, buy from well-known and reputable firms, while recognizing that they often source their ingredients from the countries we have been discussing.  They have the most to lose with poor products and are most interested in preserving the integrity of their brand.  In other words, it’s in their self-interest to provide a reliably good product; food recalls can cost millions of dollars.

Two places to be wary of: Internet sales and small neighborhood stores.  Quality is extremely difficult to ascertain when buying on the internet.  If you’re doing it because the product is much cheaper than usual, let that serve as an indicator that something might be amiss.  The US has very large ethnic communities scattered across the country that love their native foods.  Small, neighborhood stores often order small quantities of things like spices from the homeland and have them delivered through the mail, bypassing the FDA inspection system.  Be especially wary of those products, given the amount of questionable spices the FDA uncovers, even with only a 2-percent inspection rate.

And finally, avoid buying spices that have been repackaged for sale in unbranded containers.