Spices are essential for every kitchen and cook.   We can’t live without them.   For example, salt is essential for our survival.  It’s found in every cell of our body.    It has been valued throughout history, used as monetary stability in ancient days.  It’s the most widely used seasoning.  Adding this one simple ingredients transforms food from a bland to delightful.

Spices originate from various parts of a plant. For example the seed of the plant provides mustard, caraway, poppy seed. Leaves provide basil, oregano, mint, rosemary, thyme, savory, marjoram and sage. Bark provides the delightful flavor of cinnamon from the cinnamon tree. Plant berries provide cayenne and black pepper. Plant roots give us ginger and licorice. The bulb provides onion and garlic.

Spices are an endless offering of phytonutrients, validating the need to incorporate into every dish for optimal nutrition.

Should I buy organic or non-organic? 

A question I’ve wrestled with, especially when comparing prices, until I understood the processing methods.

The US produces 40% of the annual spices needs, of which 60% come from other countries around the world.   Our US Government mandates imported spices be sterilized upon entry in the country which occurs in one of three ways:  fumigation, irradiation and steaming.

Fumigation is the cheapest and most common method. A ethylene oxide gas permeate the spices, killing off any bugs or bacteria, but also leaving an undesirable residue on the food. Therefore, aeration is needed to let the residue dissipate before consumption. The USDA allows numerous chemicals in the fumigation process. Yet, the World Health Organization has deemed these same chemicals as hazardous.  Unfortunately, the products treated with this method are not required to be labeled as such.

Irradiation has less chemicals than fumigation but it’s method uses radiation (gamma rays) to penetrate packaging. Irradiation does not create residues like fumigation therefore aeration is not required. However, irradiation reduces the flavor and nutrients of the spices during this process. The FDA does require products treated with this method to be labeled as such, but there are exceptions. For example, if the spice is blended with another non-irradiated ingredient, labeling is not required.

Steaming is the only sterilization process approved for items to be certified organic.  Using a dry stream (which is a very, very hot water) allows bacteria to be destroy while retaining all the flavor of the spices.  No chemicals are used, no radiation is required, it’s simple water.

One last note regarding the comparison between organic and non-organic spices. The FDA does not require manufacturers to label a product when 1) other ingredients like flour, sugar, rice or salt are mixed into the spices, 2) if artificial colors, flavors or preservatives are used. The certification for organic spices is stringent, assuring you are getting exactly what you expect. It won’t have the potential of added ingredients and additives, compromising the whole food.

How Should I Store Spices?

All spices have a distinct shelf life and will go bad.  Heat, humidity, air and sunlight all have a negative impact, breaking down the compounds that give spices their flavor and aroma making them less potent, enhance rancidity and mold. 

Spices should be stored in air-tight containers in a dark, cool place. Glass jars with tight fitting lids are ideal. Opaque containers offer an even better storage option.

Avoid storing spices over a heating element as ambient heat can cause spices to spoil more quickly. Storing over the stove is not recommended, and neither is over the refrigerator or counter top convention oven.

How long do spices and herbs last? 

Using the suggested storing methods above, the potential shelf life is as follows:

  • Dried herbs may last up to 1 year
  • Ground spices may last up to 1 year
  • Whole spices may last up to 3 years
  • Salt may last indefinitely
  • Poppy seeds, nuts, sesame seeds and truffle products are only good for 3-6 months

You can freeze spices to preserve the freshness but this method is intended for long term storage, not what you use everyday. Simply keep out what you will use in the short term and freeze the remaining in an airtight bag or container in the freezer, refilling your containers when needed.

Go ahead and spice it up!

Next time your putting together a meal, don’t be afraid to add in some spices, even if it is simply salt and pepper. If you are ready to kick things up a notch with spices, considering attending the next Spices cooking class to learn more!