Photo by Len Villano.
You probably already know about the health benefits of eating organic food, but what about the herbs and spices you use in your cooking? Many people overlook this area of their pantry, but the quality of the herbs and spices you use is just as important as the quality of the other food you eat. Here’s why.
Conventionally grown herbs and spices run into the same problems as other conventionally grown food – the use of harmful pesticides and genetic modification, for instance – but there are some additional issues in the processing of conventional herbs and spices.
According to The Foodery, an organic food-delivery service based in Boston, one such problematic process is a sterilization method using ethylene oxide, a chemical associated with nervous-system defects. Conventional herb and spice manufacturers also use ionizing radiation to eliminate contaminants –and create carcinogenic byproducts in the process. In contrast, organic herb and spice producers use only natural methods to eliminate bacteria, including steaming, freezing and sun-drying.
Fair compensation for farmers.
Purchasing organic spices has an economic impact as well. Herb and spice farming is not necessarily the most lucrative venture, and organic spice distributors tend to also use fair-trade crop importation. This ensures that farmers are paid fairly for their products, according to the organic food blog Don’t Waste the Crumbs.
Because herbs and spices often also have medicinal properties, it’s especially important to buy and use organic varieties. Local herbal pharmacist David LaLuzerne recommends, “If it’s available, definitely choose organic. Many herbs work to remove or neutralize potentially toxic chemicals from our systems by supporting natural bodily functions. This is especially true of the many antioxidants that are in herbs. So many herbs improve liver function, which is essential to removing toxins from your system.”
Personally, LaLuzerne has many favorite herbs that he uses regularly to support his health. “I use bitters (dandelion root is a favorite) for digestion, St. John’s wort oil topically for pain issues, hawthorn tincture for heart health, celery seed for gout, and many herbs in food prep, including basil, oregano and bay,” he said. LaLuzerne sees herbs as food, not drugs, that provide essential nutrients to maintain a body’s homeostasis – that is, its health.
Many spices have health-boosting capabilities as well. Turmeric, for example, is well known for its anti-inflammatory properties. You don’t want those health benefits negated by harmful conventional processing. Other common herbs and spices with medicinal properties include ginger, rosemary, peppermint, sage, cinnamon, cayenne pepper and garlic, just to name a few that are probably already in your spice cabinet – but unless they’re organic, they probably also contain dangerous additives and pesticides.
Yes, it’s expensive to go organic, and herbs and spices are no exception. However, for spices you don’t use often – nutmeg or cloves, for example – a small jar will last a long time, and even years if stored properly. For flavors you may use more frequently, such as garlic, cinnamon and black pepper, try buying in bulk on frontiercoop.com, mountainroseherbs.com or Amazon. Organic spice brands such as Simply Organic are also available in supermarkets. If you buy whole spices and grind them yourself, they will last even longer and taste more flavorful when freshly ground.
That brings us to perhaps one of the most important aspects: how organic herbs and spices actually taste with your food! Because they’re free from additives, pesticides and chemicals of any kind, they’re naturally more robust and delicious than conventional products. Once you’ve had organic sea salt and organic ground black pepper, regular old table salt and pepper just won’t cut it.
If you’re still using conventional herbs and spices, it’s time for an upgrade to organic. If the idea seems overwhelming, though, don’t worry: You don’t have to drop hundreds of dollars on organic spices. Start with the ones you use the most – maybe salt, pepper and garlic powder – and go from there. Your health – and your taste buds – will thank you.