Are Your Pantry Spices Adulterated? Find Out And Reduce Risks

Financially motivated adulteration of commercial products has long been a problem, and sadly it does not spare foods.

Spices are particularly prone to adulteration, in particular in the form of powders.

Recently, on this subject, I posted about the adulteration of turmeric with lead chromate, a lead pigment that does not belong anywhere near food.

Because a lot of spices are produced and consumed in India, the country has been in the front seat of the adulteration problem. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India have issued educational videos on the subject. I have selected their relevant videos below on means to identify some popular forms of adulteration, on which I built to make this a piece I hope you will enjoy consuming. Passing these tests is never a guarantee that the spices are pure, it just rules out that specific form of adulteration.

Bear in mind that people adulterating spices are ingenious and creative, and don’t seem to run out of ways to adulterate spices. Use what’s below to test your spices, and if you don’t want to take any risk, I will be sharing some tips.


Turmeric

Testing whole turmeric roots for adulteration with lead chromate

Testing powdered turmeric for adulteration with added dyes


Chilli powder

Checking for adulteration of Chilli powder with added dyes


Cumin

Checking for adulteration of cumin seeds with grass seeds darkened with charcoal


Mustard Seeds

Testing mustard seeds for adulteration with argemone*

* Note: Argemone seeds are non-edible and toxic. There has been reported cases of toxicity due to consumption of mustard oil adulterated with argemone oil, presumably because of processing of adulterated mustard seeds.


Black Pepper

Checking for adulteration of black pepper with papaya seeds

Checking for adulteration of black pepper with black berries

Choosing good quality black pepper

Extra tips from a French expert on pepper trade Gérard Vives, author of Poivres (it means “peppers” in French). According to Gérard, a high quality pepper has mostly large grains, is not dusty, the peppercorns should have an intense colour (this applies mainly to the black one), and should be clean and shiny. Such grains have less heat and more aroma. Never buy any pepper powder. All powders are most prone to adulteration and use of lowest grades as fillers, but also, the aromatics in spices are volatile so black pepper powder is heat without flavour.


EXTRA TIPS

  • Buy exclusively certified organic spices, at least for those most likely to be adulterated and or those that involve the most serious risk in case of adulteration: turmeric, chilli, paprika because the colours can involve lead pigments or carcinogenic dyes.

  • Whenever possible, grind you own spices. Powders are too easy to adulterate. Heads-up: Unless you have a very strong grinder, made of very hard glass or metal, I would advise against grinding your own ginger or turmeric. They are hard as rock as I broke a standard high-speed blender with those. Spices that will easily grind in any high-speed blender without causing damage include:
    • cumin seeds and seeds of similar size (fennel, anise, caraway, ajwain, etc.)
    • coriander seeds
      Never buy this one in powder form unless you want to end up with a bag of something that smells and tastes of bland sawdust. Always freshly grind coriander seeds to preserve aromas.

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