Most of us already know the importance of eating clean and living healthy lifestyles. But what if the very herbs and spices you use on a daily basis are actually causing more harm than good? Learn the truth about food adulteration around the world and what you can do to make better choices in the kitchen and for your health.
Food adulteration (aka “food fraud”) is when an ingredient is either fully or partially replaced with something else—unbeknownst to you, the consumer. The adulteration of herbs and spices is particularly widespread, due to a powder’s ability to seamlessly blend in with other substances, such as sawdust, rice flour, various starches, and even chalk dust. Yuck!
While some food adulteration may act as a cheap annoyance, others prove to be more harmful. For example, in the mid-1990s, toxic lead oxide was found in a third of paprika samples in Hungary due to its ability to deepen red colors in substances. Similarly, as recent as 2017, toxic lead chromate was discovered in ground cumin in the United States, which can cause limb paralysis, stomach pains, and other signs of lead poisoning. These two instances just happened to be caught red-handed (no pun intended), but the danger can be lurking anywhere. So, how can we protect ourselves?
Top 6 Adulterated Spices in the U.S.
The first thing to do is know the facts. Cheap fillers and dangerous lead-based pigments are obviously not listed on spice ingredient labels, so it’s important to educate yourself on the most adulterated spices in your country. For the United States, six of the most common adulterated spices are:
- Black Pepper
Keep in mind that any spice in their powdered form is most likely to be tainted with other substances. However, it is not impossible for whole ingredients to be faked as well. For example, there have been cases where whole black peppercorns were found to be mixed with papaya seeds. Therefore, a critical eye (and mind) are key in separating the pure ingredients from those having undergone food adulteration.
How to Obtain High-Quality Spices
- Whenever possible, make the spice yourself. The great thing about herbs and spices is that they don’t need acres of land to grow. Usually, just a couple of pots, water, and ample sunlight will do!
Growing up, my parents grew most of their herbs (including basil, sage, thyme, etc.) in our garden. Then when the time came for harvesting, they would simply use a dehydrator to dry the herbs and store them in labeled glass jars for future use. Voilà!
Use whole, fresh ingredients. The next time your recipe calls for some garlic powder, simply grab a clove of garlic and chop it up! The same goes for other commonly used spices, such as onion, ginger, and turmeric root. Most of these ingredients are readily available at grocery stores in their purest form, so whenever you know you’ll be needing a particular ingredient in your next recipe, be sure to add it to your shopping list!
- Think ROIL when shopping. Sometimes, despite all our planning, we may need some spices in a pinch (pun intended), so it’s good to have high-quality options on-hand. When accumulating your spice collection, follow this guideline I developed for myself to guide my shopping:
- R = Research the company
- O = Buy Organic whenever possible
- IL = Read the Ingredient Label
Research the Company
With today’s technology, knowledge is literally at our fingertips… So put it to good use! Research and compare the transparency of different companies and from where they source their ingredients. Can’t find out where and how the ingredients are grown? Move on to the next one! You deserve to know what you’re putting into your body. (See my all-time favorite company below!)
A higher-priced product does not guarantee authenticity; certification does. Look for organic labels and certification to ensure that your spices were grown without heaps of toxic pesticides.
Be sure to check out the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list to know what is an absolute MUST for buying organic
Read the Ingredient Label
While the adulterants mentioned above were obviously not found on the ingredient label, it’s always good to double-check that it ensures A.) that the product is organic and B.) there are no hidden fillers or dyes. As a general rule of thumb for spices and beyond, the less ingredients on here the better.
Final Thoughts (and my favorite company!)
At the end of the day, it’s nearly impossible to know 100% if your food is pure or adulterated. But by growing and making your own herbs and spices and following ROIL when shopping, there’s no doubt that you’ll be putting cleaner, healthier nutrients on your plate and in your body.
My absolute favorite company that offers organic, whole ingredients, herbs, and spices is Mountain Rose Herbs (and no, I’m not being paid to rave about them!) Their mission statement reads:
“From product quality and sustainable packaging, to fair trade practices and watershed conservation, we take pride in doing business right. Our belief that people, plants, and planet are more important than profit guides everything we do.”
I mean, what more could you want?! (Pssst.. If all of this spice talk has made you hungry, feel free to check out my Best Everything Cream Cheese recipe to satiate your taste buds!)