Spice Up Your Life: Choosing Organic
Author: Brooke van Dyk
Whether you're using cumin and garam masala to season a homemade curry or are crafting the perfect combination of coriander and fennel to season your lamb chops, getting the flavouring just right is an essential part of quality cooking. Spices create a colourful flavour pallet for your cooking. We're sure that you've carefully considered the type and quantity of the spices being used - but did you make sure to use organic spices?
At this point, you're possibly rolling your eyes and crossing your arms. Why organic spices? What does that really mean? The term is everywhere - in ads, on food labels, as a colourful descriptor in menus and recipes. Organic is thrown around in PTA meetings and farmers markets - but, outside of over-involved parents and extremely health-conscious 20-somethings, the buzzword invokes derision as much as anything else.
The Case for Organic Spices
If you were to have asked me last week, I would have told you that an organic label was an excuse for food manufacturers to charge a premium price while selling only slightly better products. The organic produce in the grocery store looks almost identical to its non-organic counterparts - and organic spices seem to just come in fancier packaging. Not worth the increased price, right?
Wrong. Organic spices and produce are farmed to the highest standards. There are no pesticides or fertilisers used during any part of the process. There are no genetically modified organisms (GMOs) incorporated into the crops. Most notably, in the case of organic spices, there are no additives, preservatives, or anti-caking agents. You can think of the "organic" label as a guarantee that the only thing you're getting with your cloves are cloves. Everything about organic spices is better - from the soil they're grown in, to how they're sterilised and packaged. Because of the additional care and concern, organic spices exceed their generic counterparts in both quality and taste.
A 'Soiled' Spice
The last thing you want to think about when biting into a juicy steak is dirt. I don't blame you! Nevertheless, dirt plays a big part in how the steak's seasoning is going to taste. Did you know that the composition of the soil a spice is grown in affects the spice's overall quality? Nutrient-rich soil will leave your spices bursting with flavour; heavily farmed soil will create a bland, boring taste. If you're going to go to the trouble of cooking a delicious paprika and chilli flake steak, it should at least make your tastebuds sizzle!
It's not just flavour that can be affected, either. The soil your spice is grown in can change the chemical structure of the spice - creating some nasty side effects on the undiscerning consumer! Take turmeric, for example. In recent years, multiple brands of turmeric have been recalled over concerns about the amount of lead contained within the spice. This isn't a natural property of turmeric; instead, lead from the surrounding soil had leached into the plant, creating problematic levels of lead within the spice. (Lead poisoning has been linked to impaired brain development in infants and children, as well as kidney failure, seizures, and death).
Soil is starting to sound very important, isn't it? It's one of the significant differences between non-organic and organic spices. Organic spices are grown in fields with no pesticides or contaminants. The soil is also regularly tested for issues that might affect the crops growing there (like lead levels). This means that your spices are both flavourful and fit for consumption!
A Steamy Start
Before spices can be packaged and sold, they have to be sterilised. I'll save you the technicalities: there are three ways to sterilise spices. Two of them - fumigation and irradiation - involve corrupting the spices with chemical gases or literal radiation. These techniques sap the flavour and nutrients out of the spices, and can result in long-term side effects if the spices are consumed in large quantities. The third method, steaming, uses extremely hot water to achieve the same effect. (Guess which method is safer, healthier, and organic?)
Steaming is the only sterilisation method approved for organic spices. Using dry steam, all of the bacteria in the harvested spices are destroyed. The process doesn't affect the spice's flavour, health benefits, or chemical properties since the only thing used to sterilise the plants are water. When spices are steamed, they aren't exposed to any adulterating chemicals or radiation. (Sorry, kids - you'll have to get your superpowers some other way!)
Pretty straightforward, right? Steaming spices is good; fumigating and irradiating spices, while safe, is problematic and kind of icky. One of the best things about using organic spices is that you get the whole flavour in every bite - no additives necessary.
May Contain...What, Exactly?
Bay leaves and… mouse droppings?! If you're not at least a little bit grossed out by that, then perhaps organic spices aren't for you. For everyone else - say it with me: YUCK.
A big problem with non-organic spices is the fact that they can contain ingredients other than the labelled spice. In fact, additives, preservatives, and flavour enhancers are commonplace in non-organic spice packages. These 'ingredients' can make up to 20% of a spice's composition. Other lovely "natural defects" in non-organic spices include mould, animal droppings, insects, and other biological contaminants.
Another important difference: organic spices are also free of anti-caking agents, including sodium aluminosilicate, sodium ferrocyanide, calcium silicate and silicon dioxide. These anti-caking agents are used to keep the spices from clumping together after being harvested. Unfortunately, they contain a significant amount of harmful chemicals, making the overall effect more trouble than it's worth.
Between what goes into the package and the structure of the package itself, organic spices have their generic counterparts beat. As I've mentioned before, when you buy organic spices, all you get are the spices. When you buy non-organic spices, you get the spice - plus a whole lot of additives, preservatives, and flavour enhancers.
Something I haven't touched on yet? A spice's health benefits. For example, cinnamon is known to work as an anti-inflammatory and can lower blood sugar levels. Using organic cinnamon can help you to fight infections and keep your blood sugar on an even keel. (But please - don't use this in place of your insulin or antibiotics!) Sounds amazing, right?
Unfortunately, these benefits aren't nearly as pronounced in non-organic cinnamon. Because non-organic spices can contain other ingredients, the concentration of cinnamon (or any other spice that happens to tickle your fancy) is reduced - which reduces the benefits of taking the spice in the first place.
But surely you can just read the label to see what's been added to the non-organic spices? Unfortunately not. Organic spices are labelled as such - not to beat a dead horse, but they contain the spice you're buying, and only the spice you're buying. Non-organic spices don't meet the same standards. Simply put, checking a non-organic spice's label won't tell you what else is in the container. It'll just say cumin.
Packing a Flavourful Punch
Finally, the type of packaging itself creates a difference in the quality of a spice. Non-organic spices often come in plastic bags, leaving high-quality containers to their more expensive organic competitors. The BPA and other chemicals in the plastic can leach into the spices themselves, increasing the harmful additives even after the spice has hit the shelves.
Just as bad? This sup-par packaging is extremely rough on the environment. Because spices aren't used in massive quantities, the containers tend to be small (and you tend to need a lot of them). This creates a lot of waste - whether the packaging is cardboard, plastic, or glass.
Luckily, some organic spices are leading the charge for environmental responsibility. Biodegradable and home compostable packaging in no way compromises a spice's flavour while drastically reducing the carbon footprint. For families that don't compost, this packaging is also recyclable.
The Bottom Line
Organic spices are simply higher quality than their non-organic counterparts. They're grown in better conditions, kept away from harmful pesticides, sterilised using safer methods, and free of additives, preservatives, and other biological 'defects'. Farmers who grow organically spend less time focusing on the quantity of their crop yield and more time concerned with the quality of their products.
The bottom line is that organic spices are the best possible version of any given spice. While they can be significantly pricier than their non-organic counterparts, the increased cost is a small price to pay for a healthier, happier you. It's really that simple. If you're looking for health benefits, a high-quality flavour enhancer, or even just the greener option, organic spices are your best bet.