Tips on spotting adulteration in spices

20th Apr 2017
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Spices are an integral part of Indian cooking. However, the rate at which the adulteration of spices in the country has risen gives rise to serious health concerns. It is important to be able to tell whether the spices you have purchased have been adulterated, and to understand which sources, if any, are safe.

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Food adulteration is slowly becoming an epidemic, affecting human lives on a large scale. The use of colours, chemicals, pesticides, and additives is becoming an acceptable but dangerous practice in India, often done for monetary gain without realising its long term and disastrous impact on the health and future of the country, both economically and ecologically. Food adulteration is no longer restricted to local produce, and has found its way into packaged products as well. The presence of starch in paneer to make it thicker, hydrogenated oils and vanaspati in ghee to lend it that rich yellow colour, and even powdered bricks in chili powder raise questions about the quality of the food that we eat.

Adulteration is dangerous as it degenerates the quality of food, making it sub-standard for human consumption. Among spices, the most commonly adulterated items include coriander, dried ginger powder, dried red chili, cardamom, cumin powder, pickle powder, garam masala, curd chili, chili powder, fennel seeds, Kashmiri chili powder, rasam powder, and curry powder, which contain pesticides exceeding the permitted limits prescribed by the European Union. In India, the agricultural sector uses an overwhelming amount of pesticide, which eventually gets absorbed into the air and later the water, giving rise to a vicious cycle.

Thus, it is becoming imperative that we buy and consume spices that are safe, as adulterated spices can have many adverse effects on our health like nausea, vomiting, and blurred vision. Most often, spices like turmeric powder, chili powder, and other powdered spices have a high percentage of residual pesticides in them. These spices are also known to be adulterated, as they can be easily mixed with food colouring, added starch, coloured saw dust, or even brick powder, cutting costs for the sellers.

Below are some of the simple tests that can be conducted at home to identify the presence of adulteration in spices:

Turmeric powder: Indian cooking is incomplete without the use of turmeric powder. However, a commonly used adulterant here is lead chromate, which gives it a bright yellow tinge and is insoluble in water. To detect the presence of lead chromate, the powder can be mixed with water and placed in a beaker. If adulterated, it will immediately leak colour.

Red chili powder: Red chili powder is the most commonly used spice in any Indian household, and is perhaps also the most adulterated spice. Among the most commonly used adulterants in chili powder are saw dust and brick powder. Add a teaspoon of chili powder to a glass of water and swirl it. Adulterated chili powder will dispel a red swirl of colour.

Powdered spices: Starch, food colours, dust, and even horse dung are some of the commonly used adulterants in powdered spices, and can lead to serious health complications. Immersing powdered spices in water will ensure that the adulterants float on the surface of the water, while the remaining spices settle at the bottom.

Indian food is incomplete without the addition of masala powders and spices, but with this menace of contamination of spices, it can become a health hazard if consumed daily. The best way to avoid consuming spices that are adulterated is to buy them from a trusted source that packages them after being checked by food regulatory boards and carries either an ISI mark or an Agmark stamp.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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