Are Your Spices Fake?
Last year, I had the good fortune to visit Seattle and the World Spice Merchants shop. I liked it so much, I walked out with $100 worth of spices. Now, I know that sounds like a lot of money. Actually, that is a lot of money, but really good spices go a long way. That big bag of goodies will probably last for years. Plus, higher quality spices have way more flavor than the tasteless old powders that pass as spice in many grocery stores. (See also: 5 Spices, 50 Dishes: A Book Review)
Besides age and quality, there's another, more sinister, reason why your spices might have less flavor than you'd like — they're fake. In fact, trickery is a big problem in the spice trade; the recently established Food Fraud Database has logged hundreds of instances of spices labeled as one thing and containing something else entirely. I took a look through this database to sort out which spices are most likely to be adulterated — and with what. Are any of these not-so-good, bad, and ugly things lurking in your spice cabinet?
There are several spices that are commonly diluted or substituted. This isn't a great thing in terms of value for your money or honest food labeling, but the switches are safe and the impact on taste is minor.
In the U.S., what's commonly sold as cinnamon is actually cassia, a cousin of true cinnamon. Its flavor may be a little less complex, but it's much more widely available, and therefore much cheaper than true cinnamon, or Ceylon cinnamon. Ceylon cinnamon has a sweeter, more delicate taste, which may make it better for subtle baking, while cassia may actually be better suited to bolder dishes like curries and even cinnamon buns (cassia buns?). It may also be the choice for ant control. Only one real issue here, though — cassia contains a toxin that can be harmful to the liver in large amounts. One source said you'd have to eat up to half a kilogram at a time, so unless you're eating the stuff by the shovel-full, cassia will do for most purposes.
Okay, so maybe vanilla isn't exactly a spice, but it's a flavoring, and that's close. Real vanilla comes from vanilla beans, but some vanilla in the stores contains other flavoring, most often ethyl vanillin. This artificial flavoring has a stronger taste, but one that may be lost at high heat. It won't do you any harm, though — it's often used in chocolate and other confections and is considered to be safe for human consumption. The unique and subtle taste of real vanilla will be most noticeable in things where it's the star, such as ice cream, puddings, or icing.
These spices are commonly adulterated, but not with harmful ingredients. That means that while you might not get your money's worth — or the flavor you're looking for — at least they're edible.
I have real saffron a friend brought from Mexico. Or, at least I think it's real, because it has a delicate hay/vanilla scent and gives rice a sweet, earthy flavor. The odds are not in my favor, though. Out of any spice, saffron is the most likely to be faked. Why? Because it comes from a relatively rare crocus flower that tends to produce only about four blossoms in a lifetime. The Food Fraud Database found well over 100 instances of adulterated saffron, and shows that if those little orange threads you bought aren't saffron, they're probably flowers from other harmless (although tasteless) plants, most often calendula. They may provide orange coloring to your dishes, but you won't get that amazing flavor.
Black pepper is so common it's hard to believe we wouldn't recognize an imposter, but ground black pepper may contain papaya seeds. They have a similar spicy flavor and have often been deliberately used as a spice in parts of the world where papayas are found. Papaya seeds sold as ground pepper are clearly mislabeled, but they won't do you any harm. Papaya seeds even have some potent health benefits of their own.
There are a few varieties of oregano, but this spice should have a pretty potent smell and flavor. If it doesn't, it might be because it's mixed with other things, usually sumac, cistus, savory, or thyme. Again, these plants aren't harmful — they may even be healthy, but they aren't oregano either. Fortunately, like many herbs, oregano is easy to grow.
I was shocked to discover that quite a few spices are adulterated with things that aren't considered edible and may actually be dangerous to eat. I couldn't find any evidence of people getting sick from spices, so I have to assume that these additives are found in such low quantities that they're unlikely to do any real damage — at least in the short term. Even so, the fact that these are even found in our food is pretty unsettling. Here are the worst offenders.
Chili powder should be made of powdered chili peppers, but sometimes it also contains additives to give it a brighter color. If you're lucky, the additive will be beet dye, but it's more likely to be Sudan dye, a colorant that's typically used in industrial applications. It's a known carcinogen, so the fact that it's been popping up in spices for a number of years is pretty scary stuff. Chili powder has also been found to contain brick powder, talc, and even sand and dirt.
Turmeric powder comes from a root that resembles ginger except for its vibrant yellow/orange color. Or at least that's where it should come from. According to the Food Fraud Database, it's often adulterated with Sudan dye and a yellow dye called "metanil yellow," which isn't approved for human consumption and may cause damage to the nervous system. Turmeric powder has also been found to contain rice powder, starches, and even lead.
There seems to fewer instances of trouble with paprika, but it has been found to contain Sudan dyes, lead, and other color additives.
There are two main types of star anise. Chinese star anise is the kind that traditionally gives five-spice powder its flavor. Japanese star anise has a similar flavor, but is toxic. Guess which one tends to be substituted for the other?
How to Get the Real Thing
When it comes to spices, getting the real thing tends to cost more, but it's nice to know you're getting what you're paying for — and that you're not getting harmful additives. The best way to ensure you're getting real spices is to buy them whole and grind them yourself. That makes hiding extra junk more difficult. If you can, it may also be worth seeking out a retailer that'll sell you spices in bulk form. That way, you can examine, smell, and maybe even sample the goods to see if they're as aromatic and flavorful as they should be. If they aren't, they may not be real thing. At the very least, they probably won't deliver enough flavor for the money.
Have you ever bought spices you thought were fake? Where do you go to get the real thing?