You’ve discovered that changing your lifestyle even just a little has had a positive effect on you and you’ve even gotten over the fact that your morning OJ or apple juice isn’t what you thought it was. Perhaps now you’ve gotten a handy electric citrus press and realized that the few minutes to do it the traditional way, really isn’t such a drag after all. And lately you’ve become increasingly aware of food fraud.
But are the common spices in your cupboard also what you hoped they were when you bought them?
When one researches deeper into the source of the adulteration, one should take into account that the distributors themselves who supply the shops are both middlemen and often are not aware of supplier’s fraud. The major companies often source their spices from India, Mexico or China, and it is THEY who know what they are repackaging and selling as brand x. Adulteration is done to add weight to a product or enhance its color.
Recently, a major Indian supplier was caught and had to destroy tons of turmeric for dangerous adulteration using metanil yellow (not lethal but illegal) and red oxide of lead – the later being highly carcinogenic.. The UK banned the import of red chili powder (cayenne powder) because the extremely carcinogenic dye Sudan 1 was used to impart a deep red.
NCDEX, a company in India, was ordered to destroy 900 tons of black pepper contaminated with mineral oil. India is not the only supplier of pepper with Brazil, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Caribic as well as Malaysia, Madagascar and China supplying Europe and America.
The problem with adulterated spice is not so much using the small amounts we do use now and again when cooking but using certain spices such as turmeric in higher doses daily for health maintenance or for medicinal doses. These can vary from a half a teaspoon to a tablespoon daily.
Here are seven common spices you may have in your spice shelf:
Cayenne Powder – Packing the heat between 30,000 – 50,000 units on the Scoville scale, cayenne is used in several Asian cuisines such as Korean and Szechuan but also in Mexican. The powder may be adulterated with sawdust, red oxide of lead, and dangerous coloring. Cayenne powder is the same as red pepper or ground chilies (not to be confused with that American favorite ‘Chili Powder’ which is a blend of ingredients for the famous Chili con Carne dish).
- How to test: Sprinkle about 1/4 teaspoon onto a glass of water. The cayenne will slowly sink, not staining the water. The color added cayenne will form tendrils of red color as it sinks somewhat faster, eventually coloring the water red. Sawdust will remain floating.
- Solution: Use a few whole cayenne (chili) peppers or the flakes instead. Or test samples of powdered cayenne.
Cumin Powder – A staple in Mexican, Near and Middle Eastern cuisines, it can be mixed with sawdust.
- How to test: Take a small amount 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon and sprinkle on a glass of water. The spice will sink and the sawdust will float.
- Solution: Buy a small amount from a reputable dealer and test. Better still is to purchase the whole seed and grind as needed either in a designated-for-spice electric coffee mill for larger amounts or use a good pepper mill with an adjustable setting for fine.
Coriander Powder – Very common in Indian curries and some European baking this too may be mixed with sawdust.
- How to test: See cumin.
- Solution: See cumin.
Pepper – Ahh, pepper! How can one adulterate this ubiquitous and – besides salt – most used seasoning in Western cooking? Easily. Unscrupulous suppliers grind it with papaya seed which is rather tasteless and even add a filler such as sawdust. Whole pepper is mixed with papaya seeds which are very similar in size and color but are relatively tasteless once dried.
- How to test: Take a small sample of peppercorns and drop them into a glass of water. The peppercorns will drop to the bottom and the papaya seeds will float. For ground pepper, the test is similar. If matter such as sawdust or ground papaya seeds are present, they will float.
- Solution: Buy a small amount from a reliable source and test. Use a good pepper mill. I know this is beginning to sound like a recording set on loop, but it cannot be repeated enough.
Saffron – By weight, the most expensive spice in the world and at one time more costly than gold. Sold in small plastic mini containers, they can be made of colored gelatine strands or stretched with dyed maize filaments (corn silk). Price is a good indicator. Saffron, when added into a cooking dish that has a fat or oil such as olive oil in it, will barely release its color and typical scent. This is because saffron is water soluble. Cooks who know and want to extract the maximum possible without using too much of this precious spice, let it sit a good 15 minutes first in a hot, fat free liquid such a broth or water before adding it and remaining strands to whatever being cooked. Gelatine strands will dissolve quickly in most any liquid, hot or cold. And there is no scent.
- How to test: Drop a few strands into a little cold water. If you see color quickly and the strands when rubbed a little between the fingers feel a little gummy, it is gelatine. Real saffron will continue to release its color into the water.
- Solution: Invest in the real stuff and when you want that wonderful reddish yellow color. Use it sparingly and only in dishes where its aroma and unique color is appreciated, such as traditional dishes of risotto or paella. If you need a little yellow coloring, try a little turmeric…but sparingly. Too much of it will impart a musky, earthy scent and flavor and may shift the anticipated outcome.
Turmeric – That indispensable spice in Indian and many Asian cuisines is often stretched with artificial coloring and fillers such as corn flour (starch) yellow colored talk or sawdust, lead chromite (used in paint), or melanil yellow . This is, of course annoying but it is problematic for those, such as I that take it for its health benefits in large quantities beyond amounts that one uses in the occasional curry.
- How to test: In a small container such as a shot glass or mini bowl, place a small amount of turmeric. Add a little alcohol stir well or cover well and shake (test tubes are good for this). Then add good shot of an acid such as vinegar. If it turns pink or violet, it has been adulterated.
- Solution: Buy from a reliable source…most likely this will not be the local supermarket. Buy organic whenever possible and test anyway.
Salt – Yes. Even salt. Salt, how it is mined and what really is ‘sea salt’ is worth an article of its own and is beyond the scope of this article. Salt can be mixed with talc and other impurities depending on the mining method. Road salt has been sold as table salt in some cases in both the US and Europe. Be aware that ALL salt is “sea salt”. Even the deep mined salt is the result of eons and eons of continental shift, resulting in pockets of evaporated or absorbed sea water leaving behind natural salt. Selling common heavily processed salt and re-introducing iodine into it and selling it for Sea Salt serves only to up the price. It IS sea salt anyway even though mined with bulldozers and not through a sea water evaporation process. Point served and period.
- How to test: In a small glass, sprinkle a quarter teaspoon on the surface and wait a few minutes. If the water turns cloudy and remains so, talc has been added. Even larger grains of salt will eventually dissolve on their own, however, if impurities have been added, a sediment on the bottom will be observed.
- Solution: Again, buy from a reliable source and consider purchasing purpose dedicated salt. Use the cheap supermarket salt (almost all beneficial properties processed out leaving nearly pure concentrated sodium chloride) for salting your pasta water. Use salt derived from salt water evaporation, such as Celtic Sea Salt for that finishing touch on your salads, meats and as a table salt in general. The flavor difference is immense. Pure sodium chloride not only is not healthy – and is at the core of the no-salt/low-salt hysteria but small amounts seriously diluted in the pasta water is another thing. Celtic Sea Salt, Maldon Salt or any other salt of that type does not make food taste salty. It brings out the natural flavor of the dish and is worth the price and your health. Besides, pots of it make great and appreciated presents!
The mantra of the day is buy from reliable sources.
The bottom line is, be aware of the possibilities of spice adulteration and test it. The mantra of the day is buy from reliable sources. Buy organic when you can as these products are under more stringent rules. Look for trusted labeling of such depending upon your country’s source. Or, return to traditional methods. Buy whole spice and grind or grate or crush your own. The flavor difference is stunning and very memorable. You may never return to the ‘convenient but questionable’ stale powdered form.