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Check your spices:  there could be dung, sand, husk, colour…

This is not just another article to inform you about what harm can be caused by eating adulterated spices. That much has been talked about enough and you know all that you should. This write-up is more of a practical guide for you to find out if spices in your kitchen are safe to be consumed.  

A CV Bureau report on Adulterated Spices

In case you did not know, from saffron to chilli red powder to essential turmeric, all common and rare spices have their respective adulterants that either are mixed while preparation of the spices or completely replace the original spices. Last year, Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) while confiscating adulterated spices in Bhopal had stated that some of the adulterated spices found in the raid were so toxic that they could even lead to cancer.

In the raid, most of the locally branded spices were found containing harmful substances like coloured crushed rice husk. Crushed wood was being used to increase weight of each packet, while carcinogenic colours were mixed to improve the look and feel of the packed spices.

This matter and many similar cases are being heard in courts across India. Apparently, there exists no law that can seal the factory until the matter is sub judice and a verdict is pronounced against the manufacturer of such spices. Hence, there is a real possibility that many of the spices on retail shelves are adulterated.

It is not just the confiscated spices that are in question; almost all spices are adulterated in one form or the other and are being sold through unorganized channels across the country. Mustard seeds, a common ingredient in mixed masalas and garam masalas, are mixed with argemone seeds, regular consumption of which can cause glaucoma, epidemic dropsy and cardiac arrest. White chilli powder is dyed with ‘sudan red’, an artificial dye to turn it into an expensive red chilli powder; whole red chillies are adulterated with coal tar to enhance their appearance.

In case of mace of nutmeg tree, adulteration using mace from a wild species of nutmeg which is inferior in quality and show different chemical constitution is prevalent. Saffron (better known as kesar in India), dubbed as the costliest spice at about three lakh rupees per kilogram, is adulterated with coloured gelatin fibres and dyeing parts of various wild plants. True saffron is a rarity not just because it grows in limited regions with appropriate climatic conditions, but also because pure stigmas of saffron flower have to be harvested during the dawn as they lose aroma and colour after that. The saffron farmers, mostly women, keep an eye on each stigma and ensure it grows fully and is harvested during dawn.

So, the next time you see a kesar laddoo or your mithaiwala effortlessly sprinkling kesar on your rasogollas, do ask him what it actually is. For sure he is not using a commodity worth three lakh rupees for mithai worth Rs 150.

What Do We Do to avoid adulterated spices? 

One of the safe bets will be to source raw spices from trusted sources and grind them at home. There is also the option to buy AGMARK-certified brands and rely on companies that are trusted. For the garam masala test report in this issue, we only tested the top brands, none of which was found to be adulterated. However, we are sure had we focused on the locally made masala packets in the interiors of cities and small towns, the story would be different.

So, we recommend sticking to trusted brands from your trusted retailers or grinding your spices at home, provided you get the pure raw spices. Another option to be on the safer side is to yourself test a few masala brands and stick to the better performers.

How can you avoid adulterated spices? 

Firstly, purchasing foods labelled with AGMARK is helpful while buying processed and powdered spices. Also while buying whole spices, visual examination for extraneous material, discoloration, or infestation with insects and fungus could be a useful parameter to avoid picking up adulterated spices. Although it is not possible to ensure wholesome food only on visual examination when the toxic contaminants are present in ppm/ppb level, it at least helps in ensuring freshness. Retail shopkeepers procure produce from wholesale suppliers and some of them spruce up the inferior quality to make it look like quality stuff.

If you have been to your school’s laboratory a few times and understand the fundamentals of chemistry, you can easily test many spices at home. All you will need is a kit consisting of a few easily accessible chemicals. The table here lists a few spices along with their common adulterants as well as ways to detect the presence of the same in your spices.

Are You Surprised?

Many non-branded, locally packed (mostly sold at small kirana stores and paan shops) cardamom pods, cloves and pepper do not have any juice and contain no properties. It is because they are used spices. Their volatile oils are extracted through steaming process and are used to create flavouring agents. So, there is a possibility that what you get in a pack is only their pruned outer skin or the hollow shell or impotent seed. Worse still, in many cases the used and exhausted spices are mixed with fresh ones in small quantities to confuse the consumer.

Exhausted cloves can be identified by their shrunken appearance and small size. The characteristic pungent of genuine cloves is less pronounced in the spent and exhausted cloves. Sometimes they coat the exhausted cloves with mineral oil to make up for the lost sheen.

Spent whole pepper’s volatile oil is extracted through steaming process and then its seeds are coloured and mixed with unused pepper seeds in small quantities. The seeds are also adulterated with dried seeds of papaya which look like the real black pepper. It is very difficult to detect this adulteration in large quantities of pepper.  

What Are Adulterated Spices?

Any spice is considered adulterated if
a. it contains any added poisonous or deleterious substance,
b. it contains filth,
c. it contains unapproved food or colour additives,
d. any valuable constituent has been omitted or removed,
e. any substance has been substituted for it,
f. inferiority is concealed, or
g. any substance has been added to increase bulk or weight, or to make it appear more valuable.  

Spice Board tells CV

Commenting on the processed and powdered spices, Dr Yarlagadda Saideswara Rao of Spices Board, Kochi, said that spices like chilli and turmeric were more prone to adulteration in their ‘powdered’ form than in their whole form. Same is the case with mixed spices like garam masala, sambar powder and meat masala.

However, we have experienced that reputed FMCG companies keep up to their reputation and do not indulge in malpractices like adulteration, making their spices safer. Still, consumers should look out for the AGMARK logo approved by FSSAI. That said, where possible, switching to whole spices and grinding them at home is the best option. Moreover, when used in their whole form, spices such as cumin seeds, fennel seeds, cloves, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods and black pepper give a better flavour while their volatile oils get mixed in the food. Powders are not that effective for tadka or chaunk (frying).

Divya Patwal


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