Spice

Why Some Spices Are So Expensive (& Why You Should Spend the Money)

January 12, 2016

You know which spices are expensive: They're the ones your outreached hand hovers over with hesitation in the grocery store. The vanilla beans, the saffron, the cardamom, the nutmeg, and, if you can find it, the mace.

But why are these spices so expensive? And why can you find them for so cheap if you look in the right places?

Photo by James Ransom

In medieval times, before European exploration—as John Beaver of Oaktown Spice Shop in Oakland, California simplified for me—the spice trade was controlled by Arabs, who regulated the few places in the world where these ingredients were grown; nutmeg and cardamom, as examples, came from specific geographic locations and the prices were managed.

Shop the Story

Today, cultivation happens far away from the original source, in similar climates all over the world. Grenada, for example, is one of the world’s largest nutmeg producers even though it’s located halfway around the globe from the spice’s place of origin.

Photo by James Ransom
Photo by James Ransom

For today’s commodities, it’s no longer geographic specificity or tightly ruled and monopolized trade routes that hike up the prices. For saffron and vanilla—the two most famously wallet-emptying spices—the primary reason for their high price is the high cost of production. (Which is kind of reassuring if you're the type of cynic or conspiracy theorist who assumes their price must be due to some sort of misconduct.)

As Dr. Ravin Donald, Vice President of Quality and Research and Development, and Seth Petchers, Sustainable Supply Chain Manager, at Simply Organic explained, there is an incredible amount of labor at the individual level, that goes into the pollination, harvesting, and drying of vanilla beans and saffron: "There's a lot of hand input for a small value of spice."

Photo by James Ransom

As for other spices, a whole host of other factors determine their price and cause it to fluctuate. Price changes, of course, in relation to market demand; Beaver credited China’s rising middle class, with its growing disposable income, for creating a huge demand for spices that hadn’t existed before.

Erratic weather, too, can change the price: Cardamom and other spices are very delicate, explained Beaver, to a matter of temperature degree. If you have bad storms, entire crops are destroyed and prices jump.

And if you’re doing your shopping at a high-end or specialty grocery, you’re also paying for a lot of stuff—like packaging and shelf space—that’s not directly related to the product itself. At those stores, more so than at international or family marts, there's added pressure to mark up the products to maximize profitability margins.

Photo by James Ransom
Photo by James Ransom

Price differentials generally indicate the purity and quality of the product.

Adulteration—whereby additional ingredients are added somewhere along the supply chain in order to add weight and reduce costs, making the spice impure—is by far the scariest, grabbiest risk of low-price spices. Lior Lev Sercarz of La Boîte spoke of ground sumac bulked up with beet powder, ground pepper that is partially olive pits, garlic powder made from more than pure garlic cloves, and all sorts of ground spices laced with salt to increase the weight and prevent humidity.

And along with Sercarz, Beaver from Oaktown Spice told horror tales of saffron: There are "stories of completely fake saffron that’s made up of rolled-up paper and dyed red." There's tricker saffron guises, too. Saffron comes from the stigma of a hand-picked flower; the red part is used and the yellow part is cut off. But "there are stories of the yellow part, which has no flavor or color, being dyed red and sold as saffron." These samples test positive in chemical tests for purity as being saffron.

Photo by James Ransom
Photo by James Ransom

But Dr. Donald of Simply Organic said that adulteration isn't as much of a problem as some might think, and occurs most frequently with ground spices and extracts. Many companies have high-tech systems in place that allow them to analyze the spices that come into their warehouses for purity. So more often, the lower-cost goods are lower in quality, but not necessarily impure: When comparing "a giant jar of cinnamon for $2.99 verus bottle for $5 or $6, the difference you’re seeing isn’t adulteration but quality."

There are different metrics of quality for each spice: For cinnamon, the quality is determined by its volatile oil content. The ultra-cheap stuff, Dr. Donald said, might have low volatile oil levels (between .5 and 2%), whereas high-quality cinnamon will have a volatile oil content of 3% and up. For bay leaves, larger, whole leaves are considered higher-quality than small or broken ones.

Photo by Mark Weinberg
Photo by Mark Weinberg

And John Beaver offered peppercorns (the cost of which, for black pepper, has doubled or tripled in price in the last five years) as an additional example of quality differences between the higher and lower price points:

There are different grades of peppercorns and quality differences. Look at the peppercorns and you’ll see that most of them are tiny and small and they might not have a very uniform shape or size or color—people will buy cheap pepper and they think of it as pepper, but once you know pepper, you’ll know that's not it.

All three spice vendors I spoke to emphasized the importance of getting as close to the source as possible in order to procure the best ingredients. Direct relationships with suppliers who know farmers personally translates into higher-quality, food-safe ingredients.

But if you think that means you could go to a market in northern Africa or southern India and get the fragrant, high-quality spices for a good price, you’d be wrong. In these spice-producing regions, the best products are exported: “If you’re buying spices at a spice market in North Africa, you might actually have to use more spices than you would at home,” says Beaver. It makes sense, then, that spices in these markets are typically sold by the pound.

“The good stuff is sold abroad”—and the same is true of coffee in Latin America and olives in Spain. “Their olives are the reject olives.”

Photo by James Ransom
Photo by James Ransom

All of this means you shouldn't jump for joy if you come across a shockingly low-priced spice. As Beaver put it: "We pay higher prices for spices in this country, but we get better-quality spices in this country, generally."

So while there are a lot of ways to save money and cut corners at the grocery store, maybe the spice aisle isn't the place to do it.

8 Comments

Wiser May 20, 2016
I found this article because I am so mad that I bought a $7 bottle of garlic powder at Safeway and afterwards went to Trader Joe's and bought their brand of California garlic powder for $1.99 plus tax.
 
Blue V. January 13, 2016
In our business, we spend a lot of time searching for the best spice, and they don't always come from the major spice companies (organic or not). Recently we found a ground ginger, which is freeze dried (processes are important), which tastes different from any other one, and tastes like fresh ginger juice, and it is not from a major company. We found that organic spices are sometimes nicer and yes they are more expensive. It is a long quest for the better flavor, but it is really worth the time it takes, to try different ones and compare... and spend more!
 
Rebecca Z. January 13, 2016
Fresh spices matter. <br /><br />I've been wanting to introduce the editors at Food52 to <a href="https://www.etsy.com/people/GneissSpice">Gneiss Spice</a>, which sells wonderfully fresh and fragrant spices and amazing spice-storage racks on Etsy. I was recently given a box, and they beat anything I'm able to purchase at our local grocery store. My set came with magnetic lids on the jars, I pull out the spices I'm using for a dish at the beginning of cooking and stick them to the refrigerator. The company also sells some really beautiful one-of-a-kind recycled metal racks for sticking the jars too.
 
Smaug January 12, 2016
Saffron is (or should be) derived from stigmas, not stamens. It is the product of a sterile hybrid crocus (usually crocus sativus in trade). It is a pain in the neck to harvest- the flowers are only a few inches off the ground, and are only good for a few hours a few days a year, not all at the same time, and generally insist on opening on rainy days, when they are instantly spoiled. It takes a lot of them to make a gram of saffron. It's fairly amazing that you can buy it at all.
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. January 12, 2016
Ah, yes: the stigma, not the stamen. Thank you for catching that error! I'm correcting the article to reflect that.
 
Panfusine January 12, 2016
You are so right about the export quality explanation in spice regions like SOuthern India, It is definitely available but the price is commensurate with the quality and you have to ask around for it, preferably with the help of a reliable local guide. Unfortunately people feel that they have the right to bargain to get a better deal, which is bad because you're trying to wrest the grower out of his livelihood. I've been fortunate to experience these spice outings on a couple of trips to India & its well worth the money just to experience the flavors of spices fresh off the farm.
 
aargersi January 12, 2016
There is a meat market (of all things) near my cousin's place in Aix-En-Provence that sells these wonderful soft fragrant vanilla beans in tubes of 5 for 5 euro SO ... That totally makes up for the cost of the trip right? Right.
 
ChefJune January 12, 2016
bien sur, Abbie!