Spicy Blog

History of Organic Spices


Before discussing the benefits of organic spices, let's look at the history of organic and other healthy foods. Over the last 200 years, agriculture has made gigantic strides in producing high-quality food at large yields per acre/hectare. Land & water & herd management, basic biology & chemistry, mechanization, transportation, and yes, genetics all contributed to the fantastic growth of global agricultural output. Without engaging in a political discussion, there have been excesses in the increasing industrialization of agriculture impacting food quality, purity, cross-contamination, and of course, flavor.

As a result, today, more and more people prefer that their food is healthier, pure (organic), and tastier. The desire to ingest fewer chemicals and more healthy food has gained a lot of traction over the last 25 years. The health benefits are pretty obvious but the higher price of "non- GMO", "organic", "cage-free", "grass-fed", "locally-grown", etc. foods was significant, many times prohibitively so.

The high prices made healthier food with official designations like "organic" more accessible to more affluent consumers, typically procured through expensive specialty grocers. The broadening of consumer interest in healthy, organic food led to the establishment of larger nationwide grocers (we loved shopping at Whole Foods, but the nickname "whole paycheck" rang true during its forming years). The massive appeal also established specialized distributors which soon become gigantic (UNFI, for example). Since the desire for organic food continued to grow, it has become widely available across all grocers, even the gigantic Walmart. The hugely increased demand has significantly reduced the delta between organic and non-organic food prices.

Recently, a local grocery store began to charge equal prices for some organic and non-organic products, such as bananas and surprisingly, chicken thighs. However, it stands to reason that prices differences will decrease but not disappear. All of these developments are not a secret and well understood.

However, when we discuss spices, the history looks somewhat differently. While today's results are consistent across all food items, including spices, the path to organic spices differed.

Spices and herbs did not undergo the same industrialization process as let’s say wheat because of several main reasons. The first reason is that spices and herbs tend to be weeds that grow quite well naturally (provided they are growing in their natural climate). For example, Rosemary, lavender, thyme, fennel, etc., grow naturally and without a care in the Mediterranean climates around the world, often at the side of the road.

The second reason is that the quantities consumed were relatively small and therefore did not lend themselves to planting spices or herbs on large plots of land all over the world. This never generated the commercial interest of farmers, chemical companies, and researchers.

Third, spices and herbs tend to be local. The types of spices and herbs used vary greatly from community to community. As a result, they tend to be grown locally for consumption locally. For example, galangal is still not used to make an Italian pasta dish. The great variation and number of spices further reduce commercial interest.

Fourth, in addition to the quantities needed, spices and herbs are only an essential part of diets around the world. They are not critical, e.g., no one starves because nutmeg is not available. That somewhat relieves the pressure to drive enormous yield gains per acre.

For these four reasons, spices and herbs were grown almost organically for the longest time. Probably only during the last 50+ years, select (relatively high volume) spices were industrialized – think basil growing in hothouses. So, while spices today are swept up in the active move towards organic and healthy food, they were fortunately late to the party and probably not that badly manipulated because of it.

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Gilroy, CA, United States

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