If you would ask someone on the street what does “organic’ mean you would get a plethora of responses. Some would focus on the health benefits, while others would stress how the product is grown and others would say the price of the item is the indicator that it is organic.
As consumers, when we see products labelled organic, we assume it is the best item for us. The truth is that the word “organic’ is overused but not necessarily fully understood. To further murky the waters, there is the entire marketing industry that uses language and labelling creatively with the sole aim of influencing the consumer to purchase their product.
While we may be more apt to critically consider where and how our produce or meat is grown and handled, do we really stop and consider how the spices we use each and every day to prepare our meals are grown and handled?
The fact is that spices are often the one product that we simply grab quickly off the shelf without too much consideration. Yet spices are the often the unsung heros of a dish. Spices are the one component that can elevate a dish from ordinary to extraordinary by adding flavour, colour and in some cases overall health benefit.
What might lead us to our choice is the colourful and attractive labelling, the recipeincluded on the inside cover or mostly likely the price but, do we really stop and consider how or where the herbs in the tiny jar are really grown? Do we consider how the spice may have been processed?
The Road to Being Organic: Considerations from the ground up
The very first thing to consider would be the type of seed used to grow the plant. But that is a whole other discussion. Let’s focus on how the plant is grown.
Spices come from plants. The green leafy part of a plant is called the herb but any other components of the plant that can be used for food preparation is called a spice. Spices therefore can be the flowers like cloves, bark like cinnamon, pepper is a fruit and ginger is a root. A single plant can be both an herb and a spice. Take fennel for example, the aromatic seeds are a spice with the fronds of the plant are an herb.
So being that spices come from plants we need to not only consider how the plant is treated but firstly where the plant grows. The state of the soil is extremely important. Soil that is contaminated will affect the plant and by extension the components of the plant used as spices. While we consume spices in tiny amounts effects of harmful agents can add up over time
Another important factor to consider is what has been added to the soil. Farmers want good strong yields. To help ensure the soil is prepped. What is used to prep the soil? Are natural fertilizers used or do the opt for chemical agents that are made up of a large host of products.
Additionally, we need to keep in mind what agents have been used to keep the plant healthy? Has the plant been treated with anything to keep it healthy? Have pesticides been sprayed? Keep in mind that it takes approximately seven years for soil to regenerate and rid itself of any additives or toxins.
Then there is the whole question of how the plant is processed. It is left outside to dry? How is it washed (if at all) and handled.
And when you consider that current trends have us buying many blended and mixed spices to achieve culinary perfection, we just can’t be sure if the tiny bottles contains a blend of pure spices or if additives, colours, and fillers have been added.
The Road to Certification
The fact is you can’t know each farmer that has contributed to your spice personally or intimately. That is why it is important to at least check to see if your supplier is doing this important work for you. Buy from reputable companies who can prove that they take the time to properly source their productsand blend them with care.
In order for a product to be organic it:
- has been certified organic, and
- contains 95% or more organic ingredients.
In order for something to be certified organic, the farmer has received certification from an accredited agency recognized and endorsed by the federal government USDA in the USA or CFIA in Canada). Certification is a formal process. Farmers or producers must follow specific steps to earn the right to call their products organic. Certification is not a one-time event but an ongoing process where inspections and reporting are provided to the accreditation agency on regular basis.
Basic Steps to Certification
- A farmer must apply to be certified and this can be a costly venture. The application process is thorough and supporting documentation must accompany the application.
- Farmers must be able to prove that no prohibited substances, such as synthetic fertilizers, sewage solids, insecticides, herbicides, or fungicides, have been applied to the land and that no genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been grown during the previous three years. If that is not the case, the farm will remain uncertified until the full 36 month waiting period has been satisfied.
- An official inspector conducts an on-site inspection of the farm or facility and submits a report to the agency.
- A certifying agent reviews the application and the inspector’s report to determine if the applicant is complying with all relevant regulations.
- Once everything is in order the certifying agent issues an organic certificate, at which point the farmer or producer may start using the word organic and appropriate seals on labels and in marketing materials.
- To maintain organic certification, every certified organic farm or facility must go through a review and inspection process every year. They must keep good records (a good idea anyway) and have those records available for inspectors
In the best of circumstances, herbs and spices are best when they are grown in wild conditions or as close to wild as possible. That is when the taste and medicinal values of herbs and spices are best. But the reality is that is not always possible. So do yourself a favour and at the very least take a moment to consider what is in your spice bottle.
Meal prep is already a tedious task, do you really need to be concerned about the spices you are using to prepare your dishes. When you buy spices from a reputable source, you can just relax and enjoy the spice for the reason you bought it in the first place- to enjoy in the dish in which you are using it in.