The use of herbs and spices in cooking has been present and prevalent for centuries, dating back to ancient ways of living and preparing food. From the seasoning of meat dishes to the flavoring of meals and the addition of chilli – herbs and spices are used to enhance and complement the array of flavors present in a dish, adding to their aesthetic, taste and aroma. Traditionally, herbs and spices would have been hand-picked and used locally or traded at the market and sold elsewhere. However, in the modern agricultural systems and food production loops of today, this simple process is slightly altered. The use of chemical herbicides (weed killers), pesticides (for pest control) and artificial fertilizers has impacted the health risks associated with the regular consumption of herbs and spices.
How can herbs and spices become contaminated?
On commercial agricultural farms which produce spices in bulk, chemical pesticides and herbicides may be sprayed onto the crop or plant whilst it is growing. The aim of these chemicals is to minimize crop and plant loss to pests such as flies and beetles and reduce competition between weeds and the spice plant being grown. However, if the plant is then cultivated, dried and prepared, residual matter may be present in the herbs and spices, meaning that they have been contaminated with these chemicals. Some herbicide and pesticides, can be incredibly harmful to human health and may be carcinogenic in nature. Herbs and spices may also be contaminated with the bacteria known as salmonella or e-coli – these are present in organic waste which may have been used as a fertilizer on the crop while it was growing. Once again, these compounds may be dangerous to human health and some have the properties of bioaccumulation, which means they are hard to breakdown and build-up like toxins in the body.
Which herbs and spices are more likely to be contaminated?
Due to the nature of cultivation, herbs and spices sold fresh at the farmer’s markets or as fresh produce may contain a higher risk of carrying residual chemical or insect matter. If the produce has not been thoroughly cleaned and safely washed, there’s no telling what may be present in the herbs or spices. When tested for the likes and presence of harmful bacteria and contamination, it has been observed that thyme; turmeric, black pepper and oregano are more likely to be contaminated than other herbs or spices.
If you are making use of herbs and spices in cooking, the heating process should be enough to kill any microorganisms present and reduce any adverse health reactions, however if you are using herbs and spices as a finishing touch to already cooked dishes, ensure that your source is either organic or that the produce was packaged and produced by a reputable supplier.