Spice it Up

Maybe it’s our growing appetite for spicy ethnic and foreign cuisines, or maybe it’s just that our palates thrill to the zip added by seasoning anything thrown on the grill. Whatever the reason, Americans are clearly running hot for spices. Last year, we consumed close to a billion pounds of the stuff, almost four pounds per person, according to the American Spice Trade Association, a near 20 percent jump over the last decade.

An Indonesian farmer inspects his crops. Through groups like ForesTrade, indigenous spice producers are encouraged to practice sustainable agricultural methods. ForesTrade
An Indonesian farmer inspects his crops. Through groups like ForesTrade, indigenous spice producers are encouraged to practice sustainable agricultural methods. ForesTrade

But as liberally as we’re shaking out the spices, chances are that few of us—environmentalists included—think much about their origin or impact on the planet. We should, according to Thomas Fricke, cofounder and president of ForesTrade, an organic spice company in Brattleboro, Vermont. “Virtually all conventional spices sold in the United States are fumigated [sterilized] with hazardous chemicals that are banned inEurope,” he says. “And they may be produced in a manner that is destructive to the ecosystems where they’re grown.” This includes cultivating spices on clear-cut lands and treating them with pesticides. As a consequence, spices may be contaminated with pesticide residues and with genetically modified ingredients; almost 10 percent are irradiated as well.

ForesTrade, for one, is out to change that. Since 1995, it has been bringing organic spices to market at a rate that’s taking even some industry insiders by surprise. Organic spices are growing by some 30 percent annually, compared to less than two percent for regular spices, and the growth shows no signs of slowing anytime soon.

Farming it Out

To procure organic spices, ForesTrade contracts with nearly 5,000 farmers in Indonesia and Guatemala and is creating alliances with others in India, Sri Lanka and Madagascar. These farmers agree to follow sustainable agriculture practices, avoiding the chemical pesticides and fertilizers often used to grow conventional spice plants. Instead, they rely on composting, crop rotation and biological pest and disease control. They also agree not to poach rainforest preserves, where some farmers previously clear-cut slopes to plant crops, despoiling the environment and causing widespread erosion. The company, in turn, provides farmers with ongoing support. “We have field staff who are involved in organizing farmers to help them incorporate ecological techniques into their farming and improve the quality of their production,” says Fricke.

As with any plant, spices in the field can be tainted by any number of contaminants: insects, molds, yeasts—even pathogens, like salmonella or E. coli, the virulent bacteria linked to scores of outbreaks of foodborne illness. To combat these, most conventional food manufacturers in the United States sterilize spices with toxic chemicals. The most common is ethylene oxide, a gas that can leave residues on spices that may be harmful to human health and cause cancer in workers who have prolonged exposure to it. The chemical has been banned in many European countries and Japan.

They’ve also turned increasingly to irradiation. First approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use on spices in 1983, irradiation exposes spices to up to a million rads of ionizing radiation—the equivalent of one billion chest X-rays (the highest amounts allowed for any food). This process kills contaminants without appreciably altering the appearance and taste of the food. But Mark Worth, senior researcher at Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Project in Washington, D.C., says the technology creates as many problems as it solves. Irradiation changes the chemical composition of a spice, potentially creating toxic and carcinogenic by-products in the food. Irradiation facilities may pose an even more serious threat to our health. “Any time you have workers handling radioactive material, there is a potential for accidents to occur,” says Worth. Since 1974, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has recorded over 50 such accidents at 132 irradiation facilities worldwide.

Instead of resorting to irradiation, ForesTrade and other organic spice companies such as Frontier Natural Products sterilize spices mostly with steam heat. “Heat kills bacteria, and so steaming can be an effective, safe way to sterilize non-leaf spices” like clove and nutmeg, says T.J. McIntyre, Frontier’s manager of spices. It’s less so for herbs, like tarragon, because steaming can strip herbs of flavor and essential oils. In that case, organic companies may fumigate herbs with dioxide or freeze them. Even then, Frontier extensively tests spices for contamination before they’re shipped from processing plants abroad and again when they arrive at Frontier’s U.S. plant. “We maintain very strict specifications [for purity],” says McIntyre; spices that don’t measure up are tossed. ForesTrade works to eliminate contamination at the source, minimizing the need for sterilization by ensuring that farmers sun-dry spices in clean environments and by improving the sanitary conditions of the farms.

A Spicier Market

Organic spices contain none of the fillers (like sugar), synthetic anti-caking agents, artificial colors, flavors or preservatives that may be found in conventional spices. They’re also not irradiated and are free of genetically modified ingredients.

But a number of organic spice companies take producing a high-quality product in an environmentally friendly manner a step further and work to improve the lives of farmers and their communities. ForesTrade pays farmers more than they’d receive for conventionally grown crops. In 1995, Frontier launched a project that brought electricity to a village that produces some of the company’s organic coffee in northern Peru; two years ago, its fundraiser provided relief to earthquake victims in Turkish villages, which source spices to the company. Yogi Tea, which uses spices in its teas, operates an organic black pepper operation in India that offers housing, health aid and education to local communities.

ForesTrade produces 15 different spices, which it supplies to a number of different food and spice companies, including Yogi Tea and The Spice Hunter, which recently began offering a line of more than 30 certified organic spices from allspice to turmeric. But on the retail level, the biggest supplier of organic spices is Frontier. The company sells more than 300 certified organic spices, mostly through natural foods stores; more will be added as Frontier converts all of its spices to organic. You can also get organic spices from Starwest Botanicals and Nur Natur.

And that’s just the beginning. “Until now, organic spices have kind of fallen through the cracks” of the organic revolution, says Fricke. But as organic manufacturers look to incorporate spices into their packaged foods, and as large conventional spice manufacturers begin to go organic themselves, “we’re going to see a strong surge in sales,” he predicts. “All in all, the future for organic spices looks very bright.”