Guide for Healthy Specialty Spices and Herbs

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Adding flavours, colours and health benefits

Colourful spices

What would our fine food be without the flavours and colours of healthy spices, herbs and condiments? How would we flavour our dishes? What natural substances would we use to colour food? Which health benefits are there in spices and herbs? And what about the other uses in cosmetics, perfume, medicine and even religious rituals?

For all of the above humankind from the beginning of history has had spices, herbs and condiments.

What is the difference between spices, herbs and condiments?

  • Spices are plant subtances like fruits, seeds, root, bark. etc. mainly used together with foods to flavour, colour or preserve foods. They are added early in the preparation of food.
  • Herbs are the flowers, leaves, flowers or stems of plants used for flavoring or as a separate ingredient. They are added late in the preparation of food.
  • Condiments are spices or sauces that are added to food, typically after cooking.

Healthy Specialty Spices

Spices are as Old as History

People have used and traded spices for millennia. Trade routes like the famous Silk Route were set up from China to Egypt, the Middle East and Europe with cinnamon and black pepper.

The earliest mentions in writing spices come from ancient Chinese, Egyptian, and Indian cultures. The Egyptians used spices and herbs as medicins.

We know that nearly 3000 years ago people used cloves in Mesopotamia and India. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder wrote about cloves in the 1st century.

Nutmeg came to Europe in the 6th century BCE from the Banda Islands (now Indonesia). Indonesian merchants sold the nutmeg to Arab traders who brought the spices to the Middle East and India. Alexandria in Egypt becaming one of the main trading center for spices like nutmeg.

See more on the  spice trade here in Wikipedia.

In the Middle Ages spices reached the highest prices

In the Middle Ages spices were among the most demanded and expensive products available in Europe: cloves, nutmeg, black pepper, cinnamon , cumin, ginger, cardamom  and saffron.

The most exclusive was and still is saffron, which is still one of the most expensive foods in the world. People use it its wonderful yellow-red color and for flavouring dishes.

Saffron: the most expensive spice in the world


What is the reason that saffron is the most expensive spice in the world? The flower of Crocus sativus, commonly known as the “saffron crocus”, produces saffron.

The vivid red crimson threads of the saffron are collected and dried for use mainly as a seasoning and colouring agent in food.

Saffron has long been the world’s most costly spice by weight. Although some doubts remain on its origin, people believe that saffron originated in Iran. However, others have suggested Greece and Mesopotamia also as the possible region of origin of this plant.

A 7th-century BC Assyrian botanical treatise first mentions saffron, and therefore people have been trading and using it for over thousands of years. Today, Iran produces around 90% of world’s saffron.

Where is saffron or ‘red ‘gold’ grown?

Saffron - the most expensive spice in the world

Farmers grow saffron all over the world. But that has not always been the case. Saffron crocus slowly spread throughout much of Eurasia. And from there also to parts of North Africa, North America, and Oceania. Almost all saffron grows in a belt from Spain in the west to Kashmir in the east.

In the 21st century, cultivation in Greece and Afghanistan increased. Morocco and India are minor producers. Italy produces saffron primarily in Southern Italy,  Sardegna,  and Tuscany  (especially in San Gimignano).

Very high labour costs and the high quantities of Iranian imports mean that only a limited number of local producers continue the tedious harvest in Austria, Germany, Ibiza, Sout of France and Switzerland. Their annual output is a few kilograms.

Microscale production of saffron can be found all over the world.  Greece has a saffron producer history of 3 centuries of cultivation of a saffron called Krokos Kozanis, having started exports to the United States in 2017.

Why is saffron so expensive?

At US $5,000 per kg or higher, saffron is the world’s most expensive spice. It is very expensive because it is extremely labor-intensive. The saffron develops complete flowers in the fall. Each flower has three threads in the middle. To make one pound of saffron, a farmer must grow, harvest by hand and process nearly 90,000 crocus flowers .

Main source: Wikipedia

There are also spices from a few centuries ago that are not used so much anymore in the western kitchen. Have you heard of grains of paradise, a relative of cardamom? Or mace, long peppergalangal, spikenardcubeb?

In the Middle Ages people added spices and herbs in food every day also for reasons for health. medieval kings also wanted spices to put in wine.

All spices were expensive in those days because they all had to be imported from plantations in Asia and Africa.

Especially Venice became very rich from spice trade. They established a monopoly on spice from the Middle East from the 8th until the 15th century.

Cardamom in Spices Market
Cardamom in Spices Market

The Spaniards and Portuguese took over trade in spices and created new routes for spices and other products from Asia.

After the discovery of the New World new spices came to Europe. Like chili peppers, vanilla – today still the second most expensive spice in the world – and chocolate.

The English word spice comes from espice which is Old French. This again comes from Latin. In French this became epice.

Culinary herbs and spices

  • Seeds, such as fennel, mustard, nutmeg, cardamom and black pepper
  • Fruits, such as Cayenne pepper
  • Barks, such as cinnamon
  • Flower buds, such as cloves
  • Stigmas, such as saffron
  • Roots and rhizomes, such as turmeric and  ginger

In which forms can you buy spices?

A spice are available in several forms:

  • fresh
  • whole dried
  • pre-ground dried.

A fresh spice, such as ginger, is more flavorful than its dried form. However, fresh spices is more expensive and can only be preserved for a short time.

The best to conserve is a whole dried spice. It is also cheaper because you can buy and store it in larger amounts. and for a longer time (about two years in normal).

The standard is dried spices ground into a powder. Some spices are not always available either fresh or whole dried. One example is turmeric. They have to be bought in ground form and used within about six months.

Small seeds, such as mustard seeds, are often used both whole and in powder form. Like cardamom

Cardamom, the spice from antiquity

Brown Cardamom
Brown Cardamom

Cardamom is the number three in world’s expensive spices.

Only  vanilla and saffron are costlier in price per pound. World’s largets importers are Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

You can recognize cardamom by the small seed pods: triangular with a thin, outer shell which feels like paper and small, black seeds.

There are two types :

  • Green (or when bleached, white) cardamom. From the species Elettaria cardamomum and distributed from India to Malaysia. White cardamom is often actually Siam cardamom, Amomum krervanh. Elettaria pods are light green and smaller. A pound of organic green cardamon can cost up to around $200.
  • Black cardamom, also known as brown, greater, large, longer, or Nepal cardamom. From the species Amomum subulatum and is native to the eastern Himalayas. Cultivated in Eastern Nepal, Sikkim, and parts of Darjeeling district in West Bengal of India, and southern Bhutan. Amomum pods are larger and dark brown.

India contributes 75% of global spice production.

Nutrition and health benefits of bio and organic spices

Spices have always been also used for preserving food in warmer climates –  especially in combination with meat. The reason is that spices have antimicrobial properties. But they are mainly used for flavouring our daily food.

Many spices, like cardamom and nutmeg, contain relatively high portions of protein, fat and carbohydrate. However, people use them in small portions. In larger quantities, spices can also add a considerable amount iron, magnesium, calcium, and many others nutrients, to the food.

Most spices – especially ginger – are antioxidants due to containing flavonoids. Which is also one of the benefits of organic dark chocolate.

Why bio or organic spices? One of the highest risks of using non-organic spices is that the spices:

  • have been genetically manipulated
  • contain pesticides or herbicides
  • are contaminated with the salmonella bacteria (this happened in the USA with shipments from Mexico and India).

Healthy Herbs

Like spices, also herbs are are used for flavoring food and as medicines.  Herbs are the leaves (green) or flowers of a plant (fresh or dried). Spices are from other parts of the plant, see above.

Culinary herbs

Herbs , like spices, are used in small quantities for flavouring. They do not really add substance to food.

Herbs for cooking are:

  • thyme
  • sage
  • parsley
  • basil
  • rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
  • bay laurel (Laurus nobilis)
  • dill weed (dill seed is a spice)
  • coriander leaves (also here: the seeds are a spice.
  • mint, used for both culinary and medicinal purposes.

Herbal teas

Some herbs can be used to make herbal teas (’tisanes’) from dried leaves, flowers, seeds or fresh herbs. Well-known examples iare chamomile or mint tea.

Health benefits of herbs

Dried and Fresh Herbs

Around 1000 BCE, in China, Korea, and India medical systems were mainly based upon herbs. Herbs were connected with magic, medicine, religion and tradition. But also used for preservation.

Even in prehistory Sumerians used herbs in medicine.  Traditional Chinese medicine has made use of herbal preparations since a very ling time. The same in India, where herbsa re used in ‘Ayurveda’.

In Western cultures the use of herbs come from the Hippocratic (Greek) elemental healing methods.

Herbs as ‘bush medicine’, ‘psycho drug’ or religious tool

Certain herbs like cannabis and coca plants contain psychoactive properties that have been used for recreational and religious purposes since the early Holocene era. People in Peruvian tries know the coca plant already for over 8,000 years. For nearly 2000 years cannabis as a psychoactive substance in China and northern Africa has been used. The oil of cannabis has lately become popular as a substanve which has medicinal qualities.

The aboriginals in Australia have their”bush medicine” from herbs and plants like river mint  and eucalyptus that grow in the around them. Such herbs help against coughs, diarrhea, fever and headaches.

Herbs are also used for religious purposes. Monks always cultivates herbs alongside vegetables, while others would be set aside in a physic garden for specific purposes.

Natural or Organic Condiments

condiment is an ingredient that is added to food. Typically after cooking to give it a specific flavor or just as a complement.

The term originally was only used for preserved (pickled) foods.

As spices and herbs also condiments were known in ancient Rome, Greece, India and China. The term condiment comes from Latin condimentum where it also means “spice, seasoning, sauce”. In Latin condire means “preserve, pickle, season”. 

Ambergris: a specialty condiment produced by sperm whales

Ambergris is world's most expensive condiment

Ambergris is made in the digestive system of sperm whales. It was and still is used in foods and drinks, but also in perfumes.

Ambergris (from Old French: ambre gris: grey amber), ambergrease, or , is a solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull grey or blackish colour. Freshly produced, it has a marine, fecal odor. It acquires a sweet, earthy scent as it ages.

Historically people have used Ambergris in food and drink. A serving with eggs was reportedly King Charles II of England’s favorite dish. A recipe for making a cocktail from The English and Australian Cookery Book (mid 19th century) with Rum Shrub liqueur mentions ambergris.

This has to be added to rum, almonds, cloves, cassia, and the peel of oranges. People used it as a flavoring agent in Turkish coffee and in hot chocolate in 18th century Europe.

Where can you find ambergris?

You can still find it on the coasts of South Africa, Brazil, Madagascar, the East Indies, The Maldives, China, Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand, and the Molucca Islands and the Atlantic Ocean. For example, most commercially collected ambergris comes from the Bahamas in the Atlantic Ocean, particularly New Providence.

Although people cannot harvest the product from whales, many countries also ban it’s trade. They do this as part of the more general ban on the hunting and exploitation of whales.

It is illegal to possess or sell it in some countries. Firstly, Australia bans under federal law the export and import of ambergris for commercial purposes (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999). The various states and territories have additional laws regarding ambergris.

Secondly, also the United States prohibits the possession and trade of the substance through the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

It is legal in the United Kingdom France and Switzerland

Because it is so hard to find, the best ambergris goes for $10,000 per pound. And therefore is one of the most expensive condiments in the world. Together with saffron and vanilla it is in the top 3 of most expensive spices and one of the most expensive specialty foods. .

Source: Wikipedia


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