My neighbor threw out all her spices after reading that many are adulterated or contaminated. How do I know if mine are safe?A
Your neighbor does have a point: Spices (and herbs, too, for that matter) can harbor pathogens, such as salmonella, that can make you sick. And spices from overseas may not adhere to the same safety and quality standards as those established here. Several investigations have shown that some may be adulterated with sawdust or cheaper, look-alike spices, and can be grown with pesticides that are not allowed in the US.
There are some precautions that you can take to be sure your spices are safe, and that starts with buying a reputable brand, such as McCormick, Spice Islands and Simply Organic. Another option: Grind whole spices, such as cumin seeds, turmeric root and nutmeg, with a clean mortar and pestle or electric grinder… grate fresh ginger, garlic and onion… and chop fresh green herbs, like parsley, basil and cilantro, into your favorite recipes. You can be more confident that the spices are unadulterated, and as a bonus they’ll be far more flavorful than those that are dried and packaged.
Currently, the FDA is focusing on new regulations and increasing inspections at processing facilities to ensure that spices don’t become contaminated during processing. They also work with suppliers of spices from other countries, such as India, where nearly 25% of the spices, oils and food colorings used in the US originate, to improve quality and safety. However, many US manufacturers treat imported spices after entry to the country (with steam or irradiation, for example) to reduce contamination before they reach the consumer, giving you assurance that they are safe.
Important: Don’t give up on including spices in your diet—they are rich in phytochemicals with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory capacities. In fact, some spices and herbs have anti-microbial activity, and throughout history they have been added to foods to help preserve them. It’s also important to remember that in many cuisines, spices are added during cooking rather than at the table, and the heat treatment can reduce pathogen contamination for those spices.
Note: Many spices have “best by” dates, but these are a guide to quality, not safety. Manufacturers suggest that spices can be good for years after the best by date. They may be less flavorful, but they should still be safe to use.