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As Sting’s uncle says in Dune, “He who controls the spice controls the universe.” Back here on earth, the sentiment is not far off. For centuries, trade routes have been carved, fortunes made, and people subjugated all for spice—nutmeg and pepper, saffron and cardamom, vanilla and cinnamon.
That fraught history means it’s worth taking a second to pause next time you find yourself reupping on coriander. Flavor is certainly one reason to take care with where you source your spices. Depending on the type and whether it’s whole or ground, spices can lose their potency in as a few as six months. A jar of ground cumin could conceivably have been sitting on a grocery store shelf for several months, its valuable volatile oils evaporating all the while. Your supermarket cinnamon is also likely to be cassia cinnamon instead of Ceylon cinnamon—which isn’t bad, just…less good—and if you’re not thoroughly scrutinizing labels, you could wind up with artificial vanilla flavoring instead of pure vanilla extract.
But knowing where your spices come from is important for other reasons as well. Most spices still reach your kitchen in much the same way they did when the Dutch East India Company was operating in the 17th century—they were grown or foraged by someone in a country close to the equator, and they have passed through multiple hands before reaching their final destination. Because there are so many brokers, traders, processors, and other middlemen, those supply chains generally lack transparency. And with “spice” being a catch-all term encompassing scores of different crops grown in scores of different countries, each individual supply chain comes with its own challenges. Are the foragers making a living wage? Have the spices been adulterated by middlemen? Is climate change forcing farmers off their land?
Your best bet is to buy from a company with the shortest supply chain possible—ideally one that sources spices straight from their origin and sells them directly to you. By cultivating personal relationships with their farmers and foragers, these companies not only ensure that their customers are getting flavorful, fresh, high-quality spices, but also that their suppliers are being paid fairly. For spice growers, many of whom live in some of the poorest countries in the world, a trusted partnership with an ethical importer can mean a pathway to economic security.