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Are Indian packaged spice blends safe?

It saddened me to read about the global uproar about the contamination of spices by some of our most popular brands.

What was sadder still that the contamination was not caught by our own authorities ---- who should have been protecting Indian consumers ---- but by foreign governments when they conducted safety checks on spices that had been imported from India.


Not everyone loves packaged spice blends but the one thing we were all agreed on --- until the latest scandal --- was that if you bought your spices from a well-known brand, you had some guarantee of quality, authenticity and safety. Now, even that seems doubtful.
   The commercial spice blend is a 20th Century phenomenon. Our grandparents would blend their spices at home or, at least, would go to a local masalawala they knew well to blend their masalas for them.
   As the packaged spice blends have caught on, they have influenced the nature of our cuisine. Chefs, caterers and home-cooks will tell you that the most popular pre-packaged masala blends do not conform to the original taste of the masalas. And many foodies bemoan the day when things like pre-packaged chaat masala became available. (Its popularity dates only to the 1970s/1980s.) It has now become as important to Indian restaurants as MSG is to Chinese restaurants. Many restaurant chefs will use chaat-masala --- now relatively inexpensive and easily available in packs--- in a variety of dishes to which it is clearly unsuited. In some ways, the ubiquity of chaat masala explains why so much of the Indian food at restaurants tastes much the same at every place.
   The food writer Marryam Reshii says that the popularity of ‘one-size-fits-all-brands’ may have actually degraded the quality of Indian cooking. She quotes the example of garam masala which traditionally varies from household to household and of course from state to state. A Gujarati dish, she says, will use a very different garam masala from say, a Punjabi dish. And yet the popularity of pre-packaged garam masala means that the original diversity of flavours is being lost.
   Further, she says, pre-packaged blends are built to last which means that flavour and authenticity are often sacrificed at the altars of shelf-life and prosperity. The term garam masala, she says, usually “refers to so-called tree spices: green/black cardamom, cloves, black pepper and cinnamon.”
   In Indian cooking we use ‘tree spices” and so-called ‘seed spices’ (cumin, coriander, turmeric, chilli etc.) But because tree spices degrade faster than seed spices because of their high oil content, commercial blends use hardly any tree spices for fear that they won’t last long enough on the shelves.
   So the garam masala available in packets bears little relation to what our grandparents would cook with. Authenticity is a loaded and emotive word so I hesitate to use it. But these packaged blends have flavour profiles that do not conform to the historical originals.
"Unsuspecting buyers are sometimes sold strips of artificially coloured and synthetically aromatised paper and told that this is the best quality of saffron."
   Ironically, judging by the reasons given by Singapore and Hong Kong for halting the sale of Indian spices the current problems are a function of modern agriculture. Many of the spices tested had accelerated levels of pesticides, some of which were carcinogenic. In the US, according to the Reuters news agency, over 14 per cent of spices packaged by India’s best known spice brand were rejected. There are complaints about high levels of bacteria from regulators in other countries and many others (the UK is the latest) are looking closely at the contamination of packaged spices from India.
   Pesticides and bacteria are relatively new issues. But according to the BBC, Ipsita Mazumdar, a biochemistry expert who tested popular spice brands in Kolkata some years ago found that spices had been artificially coloured to look vibrantly red or orange. What’s more, the food colours used contained levels of lead which could be harmful to humans.
   None of this is good news for Indian consumers who buy packaged spices on trust, never bothering to ask where the original spices were grown or what quality controls were used.
   At some level, we are not surprised by the idea of food adulteration. In her definitive book The Flavour of Spice, Reshii writes about the great saffron con. Unsuspecting buyers are sometimes sold strips of artificially coloured and synthetically aromatised paper and told that this is the best quality of saffron.
   But somehow, most of us have always believed that the safety issue has been taken care of as the spice business has grown to reach a size of $ 10 Billion. The companies involved are now massive enterprises with vast advertising budgets. Surely they would take measures to ensure safety? Or so we believe. And then there is governmental oversight: the Spice Board runs regular tests as does the famously bureaucratic Food Safety and Standards Administration of India (FSSAI).
   None of this seems to have been enough. That health authorities in our expert markets should reject our spices is especially concerning because the general view is that the spice companies export only the best quality spices. The stuff that reaches the domestic market (and especially the spices that go into blends) are often of a lower quality: God alone knows how those spices would fare if they were tested at export markets.
   Indian spice companies argue that the pesticide-level game is an old one and has affected many other Indian products as well. For instance, Indian tea has faced problems in export markets because of pesticide regulations. The tea industry has responded to some of the bans imposed on its shipments by saying that not only do acceptable pesticide levels vary from market to market but that they keep changing. The Indian spice industry says that our own regulators have rarely detected excess pesticide levels though whether this is an indictment of foreign regulators or of our own little bureaucracies remains a matter of opinion.
   So what is the poor consumer to do? Frankly, unless we look to regulators to protect us, we are helpless. I could tell you to ignore the giant producers, to find smaller masalawallas and to buy your spices from people you trust. Even in this day and age, that is not particularly difficult to do. Not only is it safer, the chances are that your food will taste better --- or at the very least, like the food your forefathers ate.
   But in a pre-packaged, industrialised, order-on-line kind of world, that is not a prescription many of us will heed. So eventually it comes down to the efficiency and integrity of the regulators and the conscience of the big spice companies.
Posted On: 17 May 2024 03:00 PM
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