Walk down the spice aisle of any supermarket and you're confronted by an ever-growing range of exotic spices, herbs, and blends. The cheaper store brand sits near the pricier name brand. Both call to you: Use me. Save money. No, use me. I'm better. You hold one in each hand and ponder. Is one really better than the other? Will my food taste different? Will the bottle last longer? How do I know which one to buy?
The answer isn't simple.
Spices vary consequentially in both quality and cost. The conundrum for us, the consumers, is that there are no formal guidelines set, nothing offered publicly, that allows us to decipher what's what. We have no way to tangibly consider, much less assess, the strength, color, vitality, or overall quality versus the price.
That makes the question of whether or not store-brand spices are as good as fancy-schmancy spices all but impossible to answer definitively. There are, however, some cues you can look for, so you can make smarter choices without imploding your wallet.
First, Understand Where Spices Come From
Most spices are sourced from outside the U.S. and are imported for processing, according to Cheryl Deen, director of the American Spice Traders Association (ASTA), an educational industry group that provides members with technical information, "best practices" for clean and safe spices, and analytical testing. "There are no regulatory rankings," she says. "Quality is an issue that is up to individual companies."
Spice companies run the gamut: large and small, national and international, and famous or not. Most sell under their own brand or brands and also produce spices for private branding. Privately branded companies range from micro-mini spice blenders at your local farmers market to full-blown processors for big-box stores and huge grocery chains.
What Determines "Quality"?
Jennieann Reitemeyer, vice president of food safety, quality, and research at Spice Chain Corporation, explained that there are certainly quality differences between spices. The issue is that companies that use private branders have their own internal standards, which can be quite varied. Such standards include region of origin, time of harvesting, age, color, and volatile oil content (these are fragrant and flavorful chemical compounds in spices).
The supply chain that brings spices to the store is quite long — beginning with grower and harvester and moving to initial processor, through local traders to large processors, and then to food wholesalers, retailers, and finally, to you.
A consumer representative from the largest producer of spices worldwide, McCormick, explained that their spices go through extensive in-house quality control, including high-tech steam sterilization, site testing, and auditing, and they abide by and exceed ASTA best practices. "After 125 years, we set the bar very high," the rep says.
The company maintains that its spices are better quality, coming from farmers who have longtime associations with McCormick. They have a large research and development arm, stay up to date with market trends, and now offer a wide variety of global spice mixes.
McCormick products include a best-used-by date. They have apparently done so for years, although, as a passionate spice buyer, I can attest that they were quite cryptically coded until a few years ago. They now have a very clear year-month system.
Roxanne Edwards, of the Consumer Affairs Department at Stop & Shop, has a different take on the quality of spices. Stop & Shop-branded spices come "from a variety of vendors," she says. "Most are national brands, like Spiceco and Spice World." She contends that the cost differential between the store brand and the marquee names is primarily based upon one simple factor: marketing. She acknowledged that "customers are often skeptical [based upon the price differences], but we don't have any advertising costs." With no advertising costs to raise the products' prices, the savings are passed down to the consumer.
The issue here is transparency. Information about the standards that companies use to choose spices isn't readily available, making it very hard for consumers to decide if one spice brand is "better" than any other, or worth any extra money.
The 3 Markers of Quality Spices
In 2015, a group representing the European spice industry published The British Food and Drink Federation Guide on the authenticity of spices. It was designed for industry folks, but it's quite helpful for consumers, too. Here are the attributes that they considered. Consumers can and should use these to make better spice-buying choices.
- Volatile oil content: Spices have oils in them. Heating or agitating them (including toasting, frying, and roasting) are common ways to release these oils into the food. The more oil content, the more flavor. The amounts vary by spice — the most famous measurements are Scoville units for hot peppers, curcumin for turmeric, and ASTA units for paprika.
- Color: Spices have been natural coloring agents for millennia, and you can tell the potency of a spice by how well it colors food. Fresh annatto, sumac, and saffron should create vibrant hues. The way to test coloring potency is to buy the spice, heat it in oil, and see how vivid and bright the color of the oil becomes, as well as how fast it changes. But the color of packaged ground spices is also a great indicator. Some spices, like paprika, can range from deep reds to pale oranges, says Reitemeyer of Spice Chain. (Vibrantly colored spices are also often the most light sensitive, and should be stored in dark jars and cabinets to prevent quick degradation. Many red spices, including chili powder, which is an amalgam of spices, are also sensitive to light.)
- Physical attributes: When buying ground spices, this is pretty darn hard to use as a criteria, but if you buy whole spices, what you are looking for is the size of the spice, the shape or roundness, and the weight of each piece (which is all but impossible to know exactly for jarred spices). If you buy at a spice market or in bulk, you can weigh and check the size of the pieces against each other. Sometimes it's a matter of beauty, and other times, a big rough blemish, like on a nutmeg, means part of it isn't going to be as usable.
One factor that the study did not address is, in my opinion, the most important: freshness. The turnaround time from picking to shelf is often 12 to 18 months or more. The fresher the spice, the more vital, flavorful, and fragrant. Ground spices become exhausted far quicker than whole. Pre-roasted ground spices become spent fastest. Different companies ask for different shelf-life standards, making it hard for us to know how old a spice really is.
Freshness directly affects cost, as well. Buying in bulk is often cheaper, but if the spices get old because you simply can't use a pound, much less five pounds of Vietnamese cinnamon fast enough, you will end up baking a very, very different-tasting cinnamon cookie in February and then in December.
What Do Spice Prices Mean?
What are we paying for then, exactly? The name? The advertising and fancy jars? The supply chain? The overall reliability?
The answer is all of the above and more.
Price is also affected by other factors. Spices can become far costlier because of political changes, as with Iranian saffron, and some are more vulnerable to climate issues, as with vanilla beans. Some places in the world also have a greater history of adulteration — beefing up spices with fillers — than others, and these issues, ongoing concerns for the entire industry, affect costs.
All of this is to say that spice prices can vary based on so many factors. And that prices can vary drastically. Just look at these ground cumin prices I dug up.
My 5 Tips for Buying Better Spices
For me, the way all of these factors adds up is to consider generic versus store-brand versus fancier brands differently depending on the type of spice. Here's a little cheat sheet to my own shopping preferences.
- Whole spices: Whole spices stay fresher longer, and you can grind them yourself in small quantities. These tend to be less expensive, and if you buy in bulk, it's usually even cheaper. But I check the country of origin and make sure it's one I know is the best. Check with a good spice encyclopedia or a very reliable spice shop owner to find the best producers. Then try them yourself to find your "keepers."
- Ground spices without labelling for place of origin: I buy a known brand, or one that I have tried before and liked. I mark the date opened and pay close attention to the use-by dates.
- Ground spices with good labeling: My favorite spices are specifically labeled as to place of origin, volatile oil content, and best-used by date.
There is no consistency at all — but by and large, the bigger name brands and ultra-premium mixes from gourmet shops tend to have the dates most often. Sometimes, although rarely, you can even find the volatile oil percentage labeled (for example, for Vietnamese cinnamon, where the oil can range from 4 to 6 percent).
- Pre-roasted ground spices: I like name brands with expiration dates, and I jot down the date I bought it and make sure to use it within six weeks of when I open it. (I use lots of spices; if you can't use that much, see if a friend wants to share a bottle.)
- Spice mixes: I'm a name-brand buyer all the way, with a use-by date and jotted purchase date and use it within three months of when I open it. Different spices age at different rates, and I want the most bang from my spices mixes, just like the company intended.
That was complicated! How you do you usually buy your spices?