Spices: The Core of Our Cooking

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Spices are truly the lifeblood of our kitchen! We incorporate a world’s worth of colorful spices and herbs into all of our meals for flavor and nutrition. Most of our spices come from a Bay Area company called Spicely, which sells 100% organic, fair trade, and contaminant-free spices.

Herbs and spices been a valued kitchen staple as long as we’ve been trading goods between communities. Many of the spices with which we are familiar are native tropical Asia. The western world’s spice preference evolved from an emphasis on strong spices like black pepper, cinnamon, and grains of paradise to a wider range of flavors including Indian spices, nutmeg, cloves, chiles, and vanilla. As world-wide exploration continued, settlers planted spices in tropical regions around the world, which made spices far more available (and less expensive) to the public. Today, health and nutrition experts are learning more about the benefits of incorporating spices into diets and their inclusion will likely only continue to increase.

WHERE DO OUR SPICES COME FROM?

100% Organic: We source 100% organic spices. Avoiding pesticides and other non-organic chemicals is super important when it comes to seasonings—after all, our pantry herbs and spices come dried and therefore anything on the plant is concentrated. Plus, we know that by purchasing organic spices, we’re also avoiding GMOs.

Whole Spices: Using as many whole spices as possible gives us complete control over the seasoning process in the kitchen. Grinding spices to order also means that we keep the nutrition and aroma fully intact for as long as possible. If you’ve ever tasted fresh ground pepper and pre-ground powder side-by-side, you know the difference whole spices make!

Steam Sterilized: Many spice manufacturers use irradiation to sanitize their imported spices before distribution. Irradiation begins to degrade the nutritional properties of the spices, and can introduce potentially harmful toxins. Instead, Spicely uses steam sterilization for all of their spices. It’s a gentle, natural way to make sure that each of their spices are safe to eat. The improved flavor and color of each spice is just a happy by-product!

Toxin-Free: This steam sterilization process is so effective at destroying contaminants that it is used to eliminate pathogens in hospitals! Therefore, we know that our spices are 100% free of all bacteria, viruses, and potent mycotoxins.

Pure Spices with Zero Cross-Contamination: All of our herbs and spices truly let the ingredient shine, and we know that they’re totally allergen-free. Spicely’s facility is certified gluten-free, vegan, and kosher! Plus, they never include sugar, salt, or MSG in any of their products.

Fair Trade and Fully Disclosed: Spicely sources from all over the world, but they only buy through Fair Trade exchanges. They also provide detailed disclosures about each and every one of their products, keeping transparency at the forefront.

BRINGING OUR WORK INTO YOUR KITCHEN

Lucky for you, Spicely spices are easy to find. They’re a Bay Area company, and they have a flagship store in downtown San Francisco. Spicely sells their spices packaged in small, biodegradable boxes that keep the spices as fresh as possible. You can find Spicely at many grocery stores in the Bay, across the country, and online. (We want to note that while we happily recommend Spicely products, we receive nothing in return from their company.) Once you’ve brought your spices home, store them away from direct light. Whole spices can be stored for up to one year; ground spices last half as long.

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NERDING OUT ON SPICES

History of Spices: Most of the spices that we are familiar with today come from tropical climates. In particular, tropical parts of Asia have historically been rich in spice plants. Until the advent of large sailing ships, the import of spices was slow and laborious. Spices retained an exotic and rare air, and were often only available to the middle and upper classes.

During Roman times, the major spice import from Asia was black pepper, which came through the Middle East. As trading progressed and the Arab influence in Europe became stronger, more spices were added to the European table. Medieval meals typically included sauces infused with at least half a dozen spices like cinnamon, ginger, and grains of paradise.

Over time, Spain and Portugal developed new ocean trade routes to avoid the Middle Eastern roads, bringing back with them Indian spices, nutmeg, cloves, and chiles and vanilla from the New World. As exploration continued, settlers planted spices in tropical regions around the world, making spices far more available to the public. Their exoticism and status began to fade, and they became less expensive and exciting.

It wasn’t until the late 20th century that the Western world once again became infatuated with spices. Our palate expanded to include a renewed interest in Asian and Latin American cuisine, full of chiles and spices. Today, health and nutrition experts are learning more about the benefits of incorporating spices into diets and their inclusion will likely only continue to increase.

Flavor Science: Understanding how we perceive flavor is key to understanding our enjoyment of herbs and spices. The experience of flavor is a combination of taste and odor/aroma. Our tastebuds only register five tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami), but the odor receptors in our nose can differentiate between thousands of different aroma molecules. Our nose differentiates between apples and pears while our tongue just tastes sweet.

Herbs and spices enhance food by adding their own distinctive and potent aroma molecules. These aroma molecules are particularly volatile, which means that they’re small and light enough to travel through the air. Increased temperature increases the volatility of aroma molecules; as herbs and spices are cooked, their aroma travels into the air and into our nose. Some amount of heat is great for flavor, but too much heat for too long destroys it.

Potent aromas are used by herbs and spices as defensive chemical weapons. The stronger their aroma, the less likely they will be eaten by predators or microbes. Since heat increases volatility, cooking will eventually mellow the potency of strong herbs and spices, making them more pleasurable to eat.

The flavor molecules in each herb and spice structurally similar to oils, and we often refer to these molecules as “essential.” These compounds are therefore more soluble in oil than in water. (Think about what happens when you add turmeric into ghee—the color totally takes over the oil.) Flavor molecules are stored in specific regions inside of each each herb and spice. They’re released when the vacuoles are broken via grinding or chopping. Ground spices are therefore less potent because the flavor-filled vacuoles have already been broken and the volatile aromas have been released into the air.

We categorize these flavor molecules into two major families: the terpenes and the phenolics. Terpenes are present in coniferous trees, citrus fruits, and flowers. They’re generally generic in flavor and are often described as pine-like, citrusy, floral, leaf-like, or “fresh.” Terpenes are highly volatile and most readily apparent when fresh. When terpenes are heated, they quickly lose their flavor, which means that it is best to use each of these items fresh. Phenolics are highly distinctive. Cinnamon, cloves, anise, and vanilla all have their own particular phenolics that define their own particular flavor: cloves only taste like cloves and vanilla only tastes like vanilla. Phenolics importantly include water fragments in their molecular structure, making them more soluble in water than terpenes. They’re also more persistent in foods and in our mouths, so they can be cooked for longer periods of time and still retain their flavor.

In addition to these two flavor families, we also experience some spices through their pungency. Pungency is the feeling of irritation in our mouths and throats that comes from eating chiles, black pepper, ginger, mustard, horseradish, and wasabi. We often describe pungency as “spiciness.” Sensitivity to pungency will decrease over repeated exposure.

Like the flavor molecules, pungency can be divided into two categories: thiocyanates and alkylamides. Many foods that we describe as spicy contain molecules from both families, but they are often defined by one or the other.Thiocyanates are most commonly found in mustard, horseradish, and wasabi. They’re apparent once the plant cells are damaged, which is why ground mustard is almost always more spicy than whole grain. Thiocyanates are small and light, so they easily travel up the nasal passages when they’re eaten. Ever felt your sinuses clear when eating horseradish? You can thank thiocyanates for that. Alkylamides appear in chiles, black pepper, ginger, and Sichuan peppercorns. They’re heavier and larger than thiocyanates, so they usually only affect the mouth. These alkylamides bind to receptors on sensory nerves in our mouths, causing them to become hypersensitive. We perceive this hypersensitivity as irritation or pain.

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Spice Safety: The only problem with the abundance use of spices in our food is the fact that they are easily contaminated both at the source and in processing. Most of our favorite spices are grown in tropical locations, and unfortunately the weather in the tropics promotes the growth of fungus. If the spice farm is not properly managed, there is a high risk of the spices being contaminated with potent mycotoxins. One group of mycotoxins called aflatoxins is particularly dangerous. They are linked with liver disease and cancer, as well as acute hepatic failure, which in turn leads to hemorrhage, edema, digestive upset, malabsorption of nutrients, mental changes, and even coma. In other words, mycotoxins, and especially aflatoxins, are not something to mess around with.

To cope with these potent toxins, the spice industry typically uses irradiation. Irradiation is a process of exposing foods (and spices) to an energy source that strips away electrons from individual atoms in the food. It is an effective method for destroying pathogens, but it inevitably changes the chemical makeup of the food itself. These changes could be potentially harmful, or else they could simply eliminate the nutrient value of the food. (There haven’t been enough long-term studies to show the effects of irradiated foods—yet.) If irradiated foods do reduce nutritional value, and we continue to increase the amount of irradiated foods in our diet, we could potentially develop extreme nutritional deficiencies. In addition, there are concerns that over time, pathogens will develop irradiation-resistant strains in the same way that bacteria have become resistant to certain types of antibiotics.

Fortunately, there are other ways to make spices safe for consumption. Our spice provider, Spicely, primarily uses steam sterilization instead of irradiation. Steam sterilization works by placing the spices in a high-pressure device that pumps in sterile steam. Because of the presence of the steam, the air temperature in the system remains relatively low (around 275 degrees) and therefore the integrity of each spice is held intact. The highly pressurized steam irreversibly denatures the enzymes and structural proteins of any yeasts, fungi, bacteria, and bacterial spores present. Since the system doesn’t require anything other than superheated water to generate steam, it is entirely organic and free of any potentially hazardous materials.

The only drawback to steam sterilization is that it is only effective for whole spices. For spices that arrive pre-ground, Spicely uses a dry heat method to sterilize. They combine high temperatures with forced ventilation to keep the time in which the spices are subjected to heat at the absolute minimum.

However, the best way to preserve the safety of spices is to import only from trusted farms. We appreciate that Spicely operates a completely transparent company; we can ask for any information about any of our spices and they’ll happily comply. We know that we’re getting the best product possible. Spice farms can help control the growth of aflatoxins by controlling excess moisture in both the fields and storage. Fungi and their related toxins like to grow in moist environments, so the drier the storage, the better.

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Spice Nutrition: Herbs and spices are nutritionally important in three major ways. First, many herbs and spices have high antioxidant activity. Oregano, bay, dill, rosemary, and turmeric contain some of the highest levels of antioxidants, and they help to prevent damage to DNA, cholesterol, and cells in the body. These antioxidants are also useful in food preparation, as they slow the deterioration of flavor as well as the protein structure in meats.Second, the terpenes found in many green herbs and especially in citrus are notable for their ability to reduce the production of DNA-damaging molecules in the body that cause cancer. Terpenes can also control and slow the growth of already-present tumors in the body. Third, some phenolic compounds and terpenes are anti-inflammatory agents. These agents help to regulate the immune system’s response to cell damage, keeping the resulting inflammation in check, and reducing the occurrence of heart disease and cancer. While there are many (many!) exotic beneficial herbs out in the world, many of the herbs you already keep in the kitchen are full of health-promoting properties.

If you want to learn more about some of the benefits gained from including spices in your cooking, we recommend reading The Herbal Kitchen by Kami McBride. We relied on her book, as well as a few others, to compile the following list of our favorites herbs and spices. We’ve listed some of their reported health benefits below; keep in mind that these benefits haven’t all been approved by the FDA and we’re including them simply as an educational tool.

Herb/Spice Properties
allspice antioxidant, antiviral, antibacterial, anesthetic, calms cramps, settles upset stomach, enhances delivery of nutrients in the body, helps break down large molecules of food, stimulates circulatory system, dilates capillaries for pain relief. Contains calcium, iron, and manganese
anise antibacterial, antiviral, expectorant, removes excess mucus from the body, settles upset stomach, calms cramps, relieves constipation, enhances delivery of nutrients in the body, promotes lactation
basil antibacterial, antiviral, reduces muscle spasms, enhances delivery of nutrients in the body, decreases anxiety, calms nervous system, reduces insomnia, improves vision, increases sinus flow, improves urinary infections, improves acne, relieves constipation, removes excess mucus from the body
cardamom antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, decongestant, expectorant, removes excess mucus from the body, reduces abdominal pain, enhances delivery of nutrients in the body, promotes discharge of the bowel, enhances nervous system
caraway enhances delivery of nutrients in the body, settles upset stomach, helps with bronchitis and poor appetite
cayenne analgesic, anesthetic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, supports elimination pathways in the body, reduces muscle spasms, stimulates circulatory system, reduces blood flow (antihemorrhagic), dilates capillaries for pain relief, useful for healing wounds, settles nausea, helps with headaches and brain fog, clears sinuses
cinnamon antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, astringent, expectorant, supports elimination pathways in the body, expels parasites, removes excess mucus from the body, calms cramps, reduces blood flow (antihemorrhagic), settles upset stomach and IBS, increases warmth and circulation, supports the efficient digestion of fats and cold foods
clove analgesic, anesthetic, antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiviral, expectorant, expels parasites, reduces muscle spasms, increase the flow of oxygen and blood to digestive tract, good for dental pain and halitosis.
coriander antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, reduces muscle spasms, increases the flow of oxygen and blood to digestive tract, balancing to all body types, aids digestion, relieves nausea, relieves headaches, settles upset stomach
cumin antibacterial, expels parasites, reduces muscle spasms, increases the flow of oxygen and blood to digestive tract, stimulates blood flow in uterus and pelvic area, stimulates menstruation, promotes lactation, enhances nervous system, settles morning sickness
fennel antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, expectorant, expels parasites, reduces abdominal cramping, increases the flow of oxygen and blood to digestive tract, relieves inflammation and irritation, promotes lactation, enhances nervous system, has a restorative and calming effect on body
fenugreek antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, expectorant, removes excess mucus from the body, relieves constipation, increases the flow of oxygen and blood to digestive tract, stimulates circulatory system, relieves inflammation and irritation, stimulates blood flow in uterus and pelvic area, stimulates menstruation, promotes lactation, enhances nervous system, useful for healing wounds, revitalizes and restores the body.
galangal antifungal, antiviral, increases the flow of oxygen and blood to digestive tract, settles upset stomach, settles seasickness, aids sluggish digestion, reduces abdominal cramping
garlic antibacterial, antifungal, antioxidant, antimicrobial, expectorant, expels parasites, reduces muscle spasms, increases the flow of oxygen and blood to digestive tract, prevents blood clots, lowers blood pressure, protects arteries from age-related stiffening
ginger antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiviral, expectorant, increases the flow of oxygen and blood to digestive tract, stimulates circulatory system, dilates capillaries for pain relief, relieves nausea, relieves motion and morning sickness, helps heal ulcers and gastritis, reduces abdominal cramping, lowers fever, soothes sore throats, reduces inflammation, dispels gas, supports the pancreas, stimulates digestion, lowers blood levels of triglycerides. Contains a proteolytic enzyme that reduces inflammation and helps to regenerate and repair damaged tissue
horseradish antibacterial, antioxidant, diuretic, expectorant, expels parasites, removes excess mucus from the body, relieves constipation, increases the flow of oxygen and blood to digestive tract, dilates capillaries for pain relief, improves chronic sinus congestion, increases the metabolism, increases circulation, dissolves mucus, warms the body. High in vitamins A and C, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium
juniper analgesic, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antifungal, antiviral, astringent, diuretic, expectorant, increases the flow of oxygen and blood to digestive tract, stimulates circulatory system, helps with fibromyalgia and rheumatism, helps with arthritis and gout, stimulates circulatory system. Contains antioxidant flavonoids that strengthen connective tissue in arteries and veins; protect against allergens, carcinogens, and inflammation; and have a rebuilding effect on ligaments and cartilage
laurel (bay) antibacterial, antifungal, astringent, expectorant, expels parasites, increases the flow of oxygen and blood to digestive tract, stimulates blood flow in uterus and pelvic area, stimulates menstruation, dilates capillaries for pain relief, activates digestive capacity, enhances the absorption of nutrients
lavender analgesic, antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, removes excess mucus from the body, relieves muscle spasms, increases the flow of oxygen and blood to digestive tract, enhances nervous system, useful for healing wounds, good for sleep problems, relaxer (relieves headaches, depression, and nightmares), good for colds and flu
lemon antioxidant, diuretic, prevents scurvy, allays thirst, induce perspiration, good for rheumatism, local astringent, helps allay hiccups, helps heal sunburn, reduces heart palpitation
mint antibacterial, antifungal, relieves muscle spasms, antiviral, increases the flow of oxygen and blood to digestive tract, promotes discharge of bowel, enhances nervous system, relieves stomach aches, induces perspiration. High in calcium, magnesium, potassium, and other nutrients
mustard analgesic, antibacterial, antioxidant, diuretic, expectorant, laxative, increases the flow of oxygen and blood to digestive tract, disperses phlegm, dilates capillaries for pain relief, stimulates circulatory system. Contains vitamins C and E, selenium, and omega-3 fatty acids
nutmeg antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, expectorant, expels parasites, relieves muscle spasms, increases the flow of oxygen and blood to digestive tract, enhances nervous system, dilates capillaries for pain relief, relieves abdominal bloating, reduces fever from infections, strong digestive aid for rich foods
oregano antibacterial, antifungal, antioxidant, antiviral, expectorant, increases the flow of oxygen and blood to digestive tract, stimulates blood flow in uterus and pelvic area, stimulates menstruation, relieves muscle spasms, enhances nervous system. Used in food preservation. High in vitamins A, C, and K, iron, calcium, and manganese
parsley anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, diuretic, relieves muscle spasms, relieves constipation, stimulates blood flow in uterus and pelvic area, stimulates menstruation, improves vision, improves halitosis, increases urine retention. High in vitamins A and C, iron, calcium, magnesium, chlorophyll, and antioxidant flavonoids
pepper antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, expectorant, expels parasites, relieves constipation, increases the flow of oxygen and blood to digestive tract, stimulates circulatory system, dilates capillaries for pain relief, improves general digestive distress, stimulates gastric digestion of rich foods, facilitates dispersal of nutrients throughout the body
rosemary antibacterial, antifungal, antioxidant, relieves muscle spasms, increases the flow of oxygen and blood to digestive tract, promotes discharge of the bowel, stimulates circulatory system, stimulates blood flow in uterus and pelvic area, stimulates menstruation, enhances nervous system, dilates capillaries for pain relief, relieves headaches, relieves stomach aches. Slows the growth of bacteria
sage antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiviral, astringent, removes excess mucus from body, relieves muscle spasms, increases the flow of oxygen and blood to digestive tract, enhances nervous system, relieves sore throat, improves oral health
thyme antibacterial, expels parasites, antifungal, antioxidant, antiviral, expectorant, removes excess mucus from body, stimulates blood flow in uterus and pelvic area, stimulates menstruation, enhances nervous system, increases the flow of oxygen and blood to digestive tract, improves oral health, relieves sore throat. High in easy-to-assimilate minerals and trace minerals including iron). Used in meat preservation
turmeric antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, helps the body de-stress and cope with change, supports elimination pathways in the body, increases the flow of oxygen and blood to digestive tract, promotes discharge of the bowel, reduces blood flow (antihemorrhagic), useful for healing wounds, relieves headaches, relieves skin rashes and infections, stimulates circulatory system, improves general digestive distress and IBS, rejuvenating for the skin, enhances immunity, slows the development of cancer cells and stimulates immune cells that fight cancer, helps absorb minerals, improves digestion of protein and fat. High in vitamins C and E
vanilla antioxidant, increases the flow of oxygen and blood to digestive tract, enhances nervous system, may have inhibiting effect of enzymatic activity of cancer cells, relieves stomach aches, reduces hunger pains, reduces joint pain

 

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