How to check for adulteration in spices

Have you often wondered if your black pepper isn’t quite as sharp as it used to be? Or if your Kheer isn’t as fragrant as you’d expect it to be despite adding a whole teaspoonful of freshly ground cardamom? Chances are, you are using adulterated spices.

Adulterated spices are not very different in appearance as compared to a batch of unadulterated spices. This makes it difficult for us consumers to make an informed decision when purchasing the spices. Large food manufacturers use sophisticated technology that can compare the smells and tastes of various samples to detect possible adulteration. When buying spices loose, however, the possibility of adulteration is much higher. Thankfully, there are a few easy tricks that we can try at home to check if the spices we’ve just bought are safe for consumption or not.

Here are a few handy tips to detect adulteration in spices:

Pepper

The most common adulterant in black peppercorns is papaya seeds. To check if your batch of peppercorns contains papaya seeds, simply add a tablespoonful of the spice in a glass of water. The dried papaya seeds will sink to the bottom while the pure peppercorns will float on the surface. If you look closely, you will also notice that the papaya seeds are slightly longer than the peppercorns and have a greenish-black appearance.

Cardamom

This is a tough one. Green cardamom pods are often adulterated with “used” cardamom pods, or ones from which volatile oils have already been extracted. When you buy green cardamom, look for pods that are appear plump and feel full to touch. Used pods will have a shrunken appearance and feel emptier. In terms of color, unadulterated pods have a mellow yet fresh green color while adulterated ones are either pale or have been colored an unnatural green using a dye.

Red Chilli Powder

A common adulterant in red chili powder as well as several other powdered spices is sawdust. Would you ever imagine that somebody could go to great lengths to dye sawdust the color of the spice powder it is added to and still find it more profitable than selling pure spices? The next time you find your chili powder looking particularly vibrant, just add a spoonful to a glass of water and stir lightly. If the powder leaves a trail of red as it settles to the bottom, chances are the spice has been colored artificially.

Saffron

The more expensive the spice, the more susceptible it is to adulteration. By that definition, you can only imagine how vulnerable saffron is. Candied corn silk and colored plastic often make their way into dainty boxes of saffron. To ensure you’re using the real thing, first try to break a strand of saffron—if it is pure, it will stretch a bit but not break unless it is heated on a dry pan; if it is adulterated, it will snap immediately. You could also immerse a few strands in water and note if any strands lose their color completely; genuine saffron will infuse the water but not turn pale itself.  

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