The recent scandal involving Volkswagen is a sad reminder that we cannot trust even so-called premium brands to be truthful about what they are selling to us. Sometimes, as with Volkswagen, the deception appears to be deliberate. Other times it may be careless or inadvertent; think of the Tesco “beef burgers” that in 2013 were found to contain 29% horse meat.
Adulteration of foods may not only give you an inferior product but at worst it may kill or poison you. Herbs and spices and seasoning blends are a good example. In 1994 ground paprika in Hungary was found to be adulterated with lead oxide. Several people died; dozens of others became unwell. And 2005 saw the largest food recall in history following the discovery of carcinogenic Sudan Red dye in red chilli powder.
In a perfect world we would always buy herbs and spices and seasoning blends that are pure and natural, wouldn’t we? The trouble is, the only way to be certain of that is to buy organic products and you can expect to pay a premium for organic, sometimes a hefty premium at that. However, most of us don’t use huge amounts of dried herbs and spices so paying more shouldn’t break the bank. Organic doesn’t only mean that there is no use of man-made pesticides, herbicides or fertilisers. Organic certification means independent inspection to ensure pure and natural standards.
Unfortunately, not all non-organic herbs and spices on the market are pure and natural. Herbs and spices that are not pure and natural are those that have been adulterated. The most common form of adulteration is economic adulteration – the addition of constituents to herbs or spices to increase their value/profit or appearance. As examples, the addition of cheap bulking agents to a spice enables a producer to sell it more cheaply, or artificially enhancing a spice’s colour may enable a producer to inflate its price.
Most herbs and spices are sold ready-ground rather than whole. Likewise, most seasoning blends are made up of ground, rather than whole herbs and spices. It is much easier to adulterate ground spices than whole. Very often spices are ground at source by growers and producers. It is essential, therefore, that the spices used are from reliable and ethical sources.
In general spices are grown overseas because climactic conditions are ideal, rather than because costs will be lower. Spices are sourced from dozens of countries including India, Indonesia, Egypt, Grenada, Sri Lanka, Spain, Morocco, Turkey and Brazil to name but a few. Also, inadvertent adulteration can be a problem if there is lack of cleanliness in the production process. This is difficult to control in some developing regions where producers may gather spices from large numbers of small growers. Many spices from developing countries are sourced from thousands of farmers who grow, harvest and dry spices on small plots of land.
The most common form of adulteration aims to deceive you into thinking a food is more valuable than it actually is. If so, you will either pay more for it, so boosting the profit to the unscrupulous producer or you will be tricked into thinking you are getting a bargain when in fact the unethical producer has reduced his costs by selling you an inferior product. In some cases you may not be getting what you think you are getting (such as by the addition of turmeric to saffron powder to bulk it up cheaply) and in extreme cases the actions of unscrupulous producers may pose a grave threat to human health (such as the addition of carcinogenic Sudan Red 1 dye to red chilli powder to enhance its colour).
There is a long history and tradition of food adulteration. In the third century BC Theophrastus commented on the use of artificial flavourings and economic adulteration. In the first century BC Pliny the Elder gave a detailed report of adulteration including the addition of juniper berries to pepper. In the second century AD Galen also expressed his concerns about the adulteration of pepper. Adulteration of foods, including spices, became more significant with the growth of cities and urbanisation and, in 1860, English statutes were enacted to outlaw adulteration. They haven’t worked and adulteration involving spices continues to this day.
The seriousness of the health issues involved and the consequential risks of criminal charges to the individuals and businesses behind them beg the question of why adulteration still goes on. There appear to be three main reasons.
The first and most obvious reason is greed – to increase profit. A producer may use a cheap filler that is easily disguised in the spice to increase its volume; this makes it cheaper to produce than pure spice and so increases his profit margin.
The second reason is to enable a producer to compete. For instance, if a retailer thinks oregano will sell better if it looks greener, he may ask his supplier for a greener product and an unscrupulous producer may react by adding rockrose (cistus) to it. Rockrose has a dark green colour that when added to oregano makes the oregano more visually appealing than pure oregano. A knock-on undesirable consequence is that this might encourage copycat behaviour to enable other spice producers to compete.
The third reason for adulteration is to do with market forces and consequential cost cutting pressures. If retailers squeeze suppliers to reduce costs and suppliers in turn squeeze producers, there comes a point when a producer can no longer supply a pure product profitably. At that point he must decide whether to turn down the business or to adulterate his product to reduce his costs and maintain an acceptable margin. It is believed that these cost cutting pressures are the main reasons for the adulteration seen today in the herb and spice industry. As a result, suppliers of premium (pure and natural) herbs and spices always compete on quality rather than price.
Generally, a food can be considered adulterated if it:
- contains any added poisonous substance
- contains filth
- contains additives
- has had any substance added to increase its bulk or weight or to make it appear more valuable
- has had any constituent removed
- has had any substance substituted for it
There are many examples of adulteration of spices. Here are just a few of them:
- adding bulking agents such as non-spice vegetable matter to increase volume
- adding defatted paprika (the residue of paprika that has had its colour and flavour components removed (using hexane, a constituent of gasoline)) to paprika and chilli powder, to standardise colour
- adding spent black pepper meal (the residual material left after removing its oleoresin) to ground black pepper
- the addition of colour additives, such as turmeric to paprika and saffron, or Sudan Red 1 to chilli powder
- the removal of flavour constituents (for use elsewhere) such as in defatted paprika
- producing ground spices adulterated with grains, hulls, starch and added oleoresins (a mixture of oils and resins extracted from various plants such as pine and lovage)
- capsicums adulterated with tomato skins, Sudan Red and related dyes or dextrose
- oregano adulterated with other herbs such as marjoram, savory and thyme or with foreign leaves such as cistus
- saffron adulterated with floral waste, turmeric or artificial colours
- ground black and white pepper adulterated with buckwheat or millet seed
- cinnamon adulterated with coffee husks
- nutmeg adulterated with coffee husks
The best defence against deliberate and inadvertent adulteration is to buy only from respected sources. Your best protection is to buy products that have organic certification, as the organic inspection and certification process minimises the risks of adulteration.