Here’s the scene: you want to bake. Your cookie recipe calls for the distinct taste of nutmeg. You open your nutmeg jar and carefully measure out your tablespoon of…coffee husks.
Welcome to food fraud. Ok, so the above example is a bit exaggerated but not not entirely implausible. Chances are that adulterated nutmeg would more likely be ground nutmeg cut with coffee husks.
Why food fraud? Because spices are expensive to grow, harvest, cure, dry, grind and transport. Sadly, there are shady operations that sneakily mix a spice with other less expensive ingredients to increase their profit margin.
Is it a widespread problem? Enough so that the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) created a database that includes 1,305 records of food fraud based on 660 scholarly, media and other reports that are available to the public. Food fraud, “has been defined by USP’s Expert Panel on Food Ingredient Intentional Adulterants as the fraudulent addition of non-authentic substances or removal or replacement of authentic substances without the purchaser’s knowledge for economic gain of the seller” (Science Daily, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120405144244.htm).
In the case of spices, chances are these ingredients won’t hurt you. But that’s not the point, is it?
More than a mere ingredient, spices give a food depth and dimension. They are the secret in secret sauces, the seasonings that give a meal it’s identity, character and flavor. And besides, you want to spend your money on a spice, not a flavorless filler.
The Masters of Disguise
It turns out that saffron is one of the top 7 adulterated foods found in the database. Makes sense, because saffron is one of the world’s most luxurious spices. Honey also shares the top 7 spotlight. How sad.
1. Wondering what ingredients are used to plump up the volume of saffron threads?
- Yellow threads covered with food coloring.
- Threads impregnated with syrups, glycerin or oils.
- Saffron from non-authentic geographic origin (a.k.a. low quality).
2. Turmeric has been found mixed with food starches or chalk powder. (Now there’s a “nom nom” for you. Blech.)
3. Instead of black pepper corns you may end up with some papaya seeds.
4. Oregano may be cut with “non-authentic herbs.”
5. Dung was listed for coriandor powder. True!
6. For general spices, bran or saw dust are listed.
7. And let’s not forget the unscrupulous vanilla villains!
Avoiding Spicy Perpetrators
Well…our international food webs are pretty complex and unless your spice merchant is intimately familar with the entire spice chain from growth to packaging there is always room for error. That said, your best bet is to go with a trusted, reputable merchant.
There are some things you can do. Many of the adulterated ingredients blended in with ground or powdered spices. Purchase the whole spice whenever possible and grind your own. It’s cheap, quick and easy. Here are links to spice grinders and nutmeg graters.
Ultimately, there’s no need to be paranoid and scared. The folks at Science Daily didn’t seem to feel these ingredients could be harmful. A cheating annoyance, yes. Dangerous, no. So just be aware and go have fun buying your spices and season up!