Once a rare treasure, organic spices are now sought-after staples
In the ancient world, spice was a commodity as valuable as silver or gold, a fantastical substance on which fortunes were made or lost. But here in the modern world, the value of organic spice seemed to be overlooked when the organic foods revolution started to take off. The reasons were as varied as the spices themselves. Because spices often come from remote Third World locations, it seemed nearly impossible to produce affordable organic variants. There also seemed to be an attitude that since spices constituted such a very small part of an overall meal, organic issues weren?t as critical.
However, as the natural foods industry matured, some enterprising companies started to recognize the potential for a treasure trove in organic spices. And, with the implementation of the National Organic Program in 2002, there was a greater onus for natural foods producers to make sure that all elements of their foods were organic, including the spices.
Now, organic spices are a fast-growing segment of the organic market. According to market research group SPINS, organic spice sales are growing 35 percent annually, more than double the 16 percent growth rate of spices farmed through chemically intensive agriculture. It seems that the modern organic spice revolution is finally in full swing.
Nonorganic Spices Leave A Bad Taste For Earth
The new trend toward organic spices is a boon to both customers and natural foods retailers. Nonorganic spices, though they may constitute a very small part of a meal, pose serious potential health problems. Spices, like all plants, acquire a variety of natural contaminants while in the ground, including bacteria, parasites, insects, yeasts and molds. Unlike organic spice producers, who use steam and ozone to combat these natural predators, nonorganic spice producers often use irradiation or ethylene oxide, a chemical that is a known carcinogen. ?Spices are allowed to have some of the highest amounts of radiation treatment for any food product,? says Thomas Fricke, chief executive of ForesTrade, one of the largest importers of organic spices in the United States.
Frontier Natural Products Co-Op, the biggest domestic distributor of organic spices, works with growers in Third World countries to educate them about the market for organic products. ?Many of these small family farms already understand the problems associated with chemical agriculture because they?ve observed its effect on their land and the well-being of their families and communities,? says Clint Landis, Frontier?s vice president of marketing. ?So meeting them and providing support and education on organic certification regulations, along with a market for their products, gives many growers the comfort to convert to organic.? Frontier has worked on organic development directly with farmers and grower co-ops in Indonesia, Egypt and Turkey as well as the United States.
ForesTrade, too, is committed to the organic spice business as a way of empowering local farmers and implementing sustainable growing methods. ForesTrade works with 6,000 indigenous producers in 200 communities in Indonesia and Guatemala to promote practices such as intercropping, crop rotation and vermiculture. The company also promotes soil conservation and erosion-control methods, including contour planting, selective harvesting, terracing and reforestation.
Fricke points out another important difference between organic and nonorganic spices: ?Most conventional spice producers are accustomed to spot purchasing, being able to shop around for the best price and still secure just-in-time delivery,? Fricke explains. ?Spot buying is highly discouraged with regard to organic spices, as well as most organic ingredients. There needs to be a heightened understanding that ?We?re in this together,? and these contracts are also agreements with the farmers, their families and communities.?
Organic Is The Nice Spice
Organic spice is far from the rare and expensive commodity it was just 10 years ago. Frontier carries 76 certified organic spices and seasonings in bottles, and more than 100 certified organic spices and seasonings in bulk. ForesTrade carries 15 spices, serving as a reseller to natural foods and beverage manufacturers, as well as to nutraceutical, personal care, flavor and fragrance industries.
Landis says Frontier is able to source most spices organically, with the exception of saffron and such ethnic specialty spices as asafoetida, chervil and green peppercorns. Frontier?s business has increased 28 percent from last year, to $2.3 million, while ForesTrade says it?s growing about 30 percent per year. According to SPINS, retail sales of organic packaged seasonings during the 52 weeks ending Oct. 4 totaled $3.6 million.
Natural foods retailers like Vitamin Cottage enthusiastically welcome the growing availability of organic spices. ?Organics are the growth area in spices for us because it?s so different from what?s available in the mass market,? says Debbie Knapp, grocery buyer for the chain. According to Knapp, about 20 percent of Vitamin Cottage?s bulk herbs and spices are organic, as are about 50 percent of its bottled spices. Vitamin Cottage carries organic spice lines from Frontier and McFadden Farm. ?We?ve always had nonirradiated spices and much fresher spices than the mass market,? Knapp says. ?But I?d say a majority of our shoppers are looking for the organic varieties of spices, as long as they are not too much more expensive than conventional ones.?
Knapp says Vitamin Cottage does not charge a premium for organic. ?It?s the same mark-up whether the spice is organic or conventional,? she says. ?However, many of the organics cost more, although costs have been lessening over the years, as the growers get it figured out better.?
But consumers have proven themselves willing to pay a premium for all the benefits of organic spices. ?It?s about the history, mystery and romance of spices, and it?s also about health and nutrition, which is one of the most compelling reasons why people want to buy organic spices,? Fricke says. ?But it?s also about participating in a global sustainability effort—we?re all in this together.?
Lynn Ginsburg is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo., and co-author of What Are You Hungry For? Women, Food and Spirituality (St. Martin?s Press, 2002). For more information, check out www.whatareyouhungryfor.net.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 1/p. 34, 38