Buying Organic Spices vs. Non-organic Spices: What’s Better?
Spices are the unsung heroes of many a dish. They bring flavor, they add color and they can even elevate the meal’s overall health factor. Why else would our predecessors have traded them like currency? Spices can really liven up a meal. Should we stick with the regular store bought spices or try to buy organic spices?
Unfortunately, spices may not always be so nice. It seems these potent little particles take quite a journey before making it to your pantry. Consider how they’ve been cared for along the way.
Lead-related Recalls That May Make Your Jaw Drop
In late 2016, turmeric made news not for its many potential benefits, but for a series of recalls. It started when the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets discovered excessive amounts of lead in certain brands of turmeric.1
Recalls ensued for ground turmeric and blended curry seasoning from companies including Gel Spice Inc., JM Exotic Foods Inc. and Oriental Packing Co. Inc.2
By October 2016, Spices USA Inc. also followed suit. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration discovered elevated levels of lead in some packages of its Tasty Sawa Ground Turmeric.2
The Problem with Lead
Lead can accumulate in the body over time. High amounts are especially dangerous for pregnant women, infants, and children. The news made my heart sink like lead. I routinely add powdered turmeric to plain yogurt and serve it to my son. I thought this spice had the potential to ward off heart attacks, delay diabetes and even fight cancer.3
According to Spices USA, the elevated lead found in their recalled turmeric packages originated from the facility in India where the product was packed.2
So is it helpful to cook with spices? Or is it not worth the risk?
What Makes a Spice a Spice Anyway?
Spices derive from any part of a plant that is not a leaf: for example, cloves are flower buds, cinnamon is bark, ginger is a root, and on and on. Herbs, on the other hand, are the green and leafy part of a plant. A single plant can yield both a herb and a spice. Take dill, for example. The plant’s aromatic seeds are a spice, while its leaves are a herb. 4
With that in mind, is it safe to conclude that a spice like pepper is all it’s cracked up to be? If the label on the jar says one thing, what else could possibly be lurking inside?
Digging Up the Dirt
Food recalls are always scary, but what would cause an innocent little spice to be spiked with something as frightening as lead? It seems that to get the dirt, you have to do a little digging about how spice-producing plants are grown.
The soil a plant grows in will contribute to its composition. For example, it is possible for a plant like turmeric to take up lead from soil that has high levels of the substance.
Plants do not intentionally absorb lead from the soil. Lead is not a plant nutrient. However, lead may introduce itself to a plant as the result of residual dust from the soil.5 Since turmeric is a root, soil contamination may be an unavoidable part of harvesting and processing.
When it comes to potential contaminants, soil may not be the only factor. Often, spices are sold by weight. At some point during processing and packaging, it is possible to add in powders of cheaper, and perhaps harmful, agents with a similar color, thus diluting the raw spice with something you did not bargain for.
Go Fresh and Buy Organic Spices to Maximize Potential Health Benefits
Nearly all spices are dried before use. They are best when purchased whole and ground during meal preparation. Resist the urge to stock up on bulk amounts of spices. Smaller portions can help to ensure you use them while they are still fresh. Spices will lose potency over time. Consider them expired after twelve months.
Turmeric, or Curcuma longa, as it is technically known, is part of the ginger family. In its raw form, it looks very similar to a ginger root. To be more confident about this spice, try to get your hands on a fresh turmeric root. Next, you can dehydrate it. Then grind it up.
Cook Your Spices to Enhance Their Flavor
Whether whole or ground, many spices need to be lightly cooked before use. This will enhance and possibly even heighten their flavor. To prepare whole spices, you can spread them over a tray and dry roast them in a hot oven for a few minutes. Next, grind them up or leave them whole and add straight to a dish. If you choose to grind your spices, they are best gently fried, without oil, in a frying pan for up to sixty seconds.4
Buying organic spices can also give you more confidence. Organic spices and medicinal herbs should ideally grow in wild conditions or conditions that most closely approximate their wild origins. This will help to maximize the medicinal value.4 The use of pesticides and herbicides can alter plants’ make-up, thereby altering their flavors and medicinal attributes.4
If possible, buy organic spices from a reputable source. When you do, you can relax and just enjoy the many ways that spices can perk up your plate.
- “Six brands of turmeric added to recall for excessive lead.” Food Safety News. com. 8 August. 2016.
- “Spices USA recalls imported ground turmeric for excessive lead.” Food Safety News. com. 3 October. 2016.
- “6 Health Benefits of Turmeric.” The Huffington Post. com. 18 October. 2014.
- “Herbs and Spices.” Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. com. 3 Feb. 2017.
- “Lead.” Soil Science Society of America. org. 2017.