Spice up your life with flavors from around the world. When you do, consider where and how your ingredients are sourced. You likely already look for organic foods and invest in Fair Trade products, so before you reach for your cloves, saffron or sage, evaluate growing and harvesting practices to make sure you’re ethically and sustainably sourcing your spices.
Like every product, there is a range of qualities available when it comes to spices. For businesses, it comes down to profit margins, so many will cut corners wherever possible. That can mean mixing ingredients from different regions. So, although a container may be labeled as containing organic, pesticide-free or fairly-sourced ingredients, be careful with that information. Unless the product is certified, the marketing can be misleading. While the bottle likely does contain some of the promised wholesome ingredients, it’s also likely it’s a small percentage and the rest of the bottle contains less-than-optimal quality.
You’ve likely heard about the crimes against humanity related to the spice trade that started hundreds of years ago. It’s important to note, though, that slave-like treatment of workers isn’t something limited to the history books. Do your research to make sure you’re buying spices from a company that treats its workers fairly. Single-origin spices and those sold at local farmers‘ markets are usually safe choices.
Small farmers are the backbone of any sustainably-grown product. Spices require specific growing conditions, so they are sourced from around the globe, in locations where they’ve been grown for generations. The problem is that small farmers often have a difficult time catching the attention of worldwide markets. What commonly happens is that several small farms in an area sell to someone willing to buy their crops. That buyer then combines the ingredients and sells to a larger buyer who ships them out of the country. By the time the spices are imported and transferred to a distributor, no one really knows the origin of the ingredients being repackaged and sold at the supermarket.
Many food certifications can help you identify chemical-free and worker-friendly products. The Fair Trade label ensures worker safety and fair pay, as well as a fair price for growers. Rainforest Alliance certification guarantees a balance of forest management with a focus on clean water, healthy trees and soil protections. It also works to avoid deforestation and increase carbon sequestration. The label means workers are provided with safe and equitable working conditions.
As with all foods, spices should be grown organically. Eliminating toxins from our food supply is not only good for our health but also for the planet. Spices grown organically do not contain pesticides, fertilizers, insecticides and other toxins that leach into the air and water. Avoiding this type of environmental pollution is a powerful tool for healthier soil, animals and humans.
The spice industry has been historically lacking in transparency. As we said, it’s all about the money. The more consumers know about how little farmers are paid, the way workers are treated, and the destruction of the land where spices are grown, the more it impacts the bottom line.
The key to changing this practice is careful research with each purchase. Like the single-source coffee or Fair Trade chocolate you support, hunting down spice brands committed to environmental and human protections is a step toward further ethically stocking your kitchen.
While it may be difficult to know what goes on halfway around the world, there are specific brands dedicated to transparency for the health of consumers, workers, growers and the planet. These brands often offer direct-to-consumer shipments. They also provide single-source options for easy tracing.
If you’re looking for well-researched, ethically-produced and anti-inflammatory turmeric, check out brand Diaspora Co. The company’s founder, Sana Javeri Kadri, is all about supporting her native Indian farmers. After schooling in California, she started the company in alignment with sustainability and human protection goals and has now expanded her product line to include cardamom.
Other transparent brand names to look for include Burlap & Barrel, Curio Spice, Cinnamon Tree Organics, Reluctant Trading Experiment, Zameen, and Heray Spice.
While it is commendable to research and support companies dedicated to ethical growing, harvesting and distribution of spices, there might be a more selfish reason to go through the effort — taste.
Compare the concept to lettuce hand-picked from your yard or purchased at a local farmer’s market in contrast to pre-packaged lettuce at the supermarket. There is no comparison when it comes to quality and taste. The same holds true for spices. The mass-distributed products you may have been raised on lack the flavor and depth of quality spices direct from their origin. When you dig into it, spices are like any other plant. There is a world of different flavors, even within the same spice. For example, compare cinnamon from different farms. Even the most basic spice, salt, comes in myriad forms from different regions, each offering a distinctive taste profile.
So if bold, unique, smoky, pungent, subtle, aromatic or spicy is the goal for your favorite recipe, choosing ethically and sustainably sourced spices offers a win for your palate and the planet.
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