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It burns so good: why do some people like spicy food?

Spicy foods are meant to discourage us from eating them. However, humans stand apart from other animals in that we sometimes seek these items to eat specifically because they’re spicy. Exactly why we do this is unclear, but it’s likely a combination of factors ranging from potential health benefits to cultural norms and personal preference.

Image credits Chris Hilbert.

Do you enjoy doing things that hurt your tongue? Have you ever thought “man, I’d like to feel my mouth on fire!”? Do you get excited at the prospect of hot wings so hot that they make your very soul tremble? If yes, let me just say that I cannot, for the life of me, sympathize with you. I like my meals like I like my car: not burning.

But that’s not a universal preference among people, which raises an interesting point — why do some people like spicy food? On the face of it, it doesn’t make any sense. We know certain plants use chemical defenses against pests and pathogens, chemicals that also give them unique qualities like flavor or taste. Some are milder, like onions, garlic, or pepper. Others will have you in tears, gagging for life, hoping for death. And yet, we keep coming back for seconds. Sometimes we even go to events to see who can withstand the spiciest foods.

In short, although these plants contain substances specifically to make us not want them, we seek them out, specifically. We don’t really know why, but we do have some ideas, and we’re going to talk about those today.

What makes a spice, what makes it spicy?

We’ve talked about spices before here on ZME Science, but mostly from a historical standpoint. In more practical terms, spices are plant products (apart from their leaves, stems, and flowers, which are referred to as ‘herbs’) that can impart taste, flavor, or color to a meal.

They aren’t very common, all things considered. Their special properties were most likely formed because these plants had to contend with environmental pressures such as parasites, predators, or diseases. They became spices through chemical warfare. Since each species had its own issues to contend with, there is a very wide range of substances they employ. We collectively know these plants as spices, but we also make a distinction between them and things that are ‘spicy’.

A good example are peppers. Bell peppers are a spice, they’re the main ingredient in paprika, but they’re not spicy. Jalapeño peppers can be a spice, but they’re definitely very spicy. The difference between these two terms is more of a subjective one. Things that ‘are spicy’ contain substances that are particularly irritating or unpleasant to us as humans. They’re tailored to offend our bodies in particular.

Not all spices are spicy. Image via Pixabay.

In the case of spicy peppers, that substance is capsaicin. It will make your eyes water, but it wouldn’t have much effect on a bird. We think it comes down to the fact that pepper seeds can’t survive the strong acids in the mammalian gut, but they can make it through a birds’ intestines unscathed. In a bid to help spread their seeds, the theory goes, peppers developed capsaicin to keep mammals away but allow birds to peck away unscathed. We were the intended target for their chemical war effort.

Why people like spices, in general, isn’t very hard to wrap your head around: the flavors they contain are interesting and make meals more enjoyable. Why people like things that are spicy, on the other hand, is a bit more nebulous. Especially so because their spiciness was designed specifically to make us not like them.

Maybe it’s because they make food safe

Evolutionary biologists like to view the traits and behaviors of individual species as elements that help them navigate their environments — like skills that you acquire in time to fulfil your needs. On the one hand, this means that certain plants had a reason to become spices, and we’ve talked about that just now. But on the other hand, it would also mean that we have an evolutionary need to consume spices, or else we wouldn’t.

A paper (Sherman, Billing) published back in 1999 sums up that idea quite nicely in its headline: “Darwinian Gastronomy: Why We Use Spices: Spices taste good because they are good for us“. The authors looked at the use of spices in traditional cuisines across the world from “traditional cookbooks”, comparing this to the natural conditions these cultures developed in.

Their theory was that the use of spice is, at least in part, a pragmatic thing. In warmer climates, they hypothesized, food (meat especially) would spoil quicker and contain more pathogens than in colder climates. The use of spice may well be a subconscious effort to protect ourselves from these, which grew into a cultural preference over time. As we’ve seen before, spices are essentially plant species that use powerful chemicals to protect themselves. The theory, then, is that people mixed these into their foods, in relatively small quantities, to fight off any pathogens in the food — which are a much bigger risk than the chemicals contained in the spices.

Essentially, it’s taking a gamble that the small dose of poison in our food will do more damage to any bacteria or viruses therein than it would do to our bodies.

The authors did find some evidence in support of their hypothesis. The cookbooks from warmer areas mentioned more types of spices overall, and called for more of them to be included in every dish, than those in colder climates. When looking only at meat dishes (meat spoils faster and contains more pathogens than spoiled plant matter), the average number of spices called for by the recipes was 4, and 93% of these recipes called for at least one type of spice. However, Norwegian cookbooks only mentioned 10 different spices and called for 1.6 spices per dish on average. Hungarian cookbooks mentioned up to 21 different spices and called for 3 spices, on average, for each dish.

Certain cuisines are renowned for the amount of spices they typically include. Image via Pixabay.

“But wait!” you cry out, wise to the fact that correlation doesn’t imply causation, “so it doesn’t mean one causes the other just because they occur together”. And, as always, you’re right. This one paper can’t prove that people employ spices against pathogens in foods. It also just happens that most spices today are endemic (native) to warmer areas, as these generally harbor more diverse communities of plants, animals, and the like. So it could simply be a matter of availability. Spices also tended to be extremely expensive or simply not available to many colder regions in the past, so it would make sense their traditional cookbooks won’t mention them, or only do so sparingly.

At the same time, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the hypothesis is wrong, it just means we can’t know for sure. The authors further note that vegetable dishes called for much fewer spices across the board, which would fit well with their hypothesis — since spoiled meat contains more bacteria than spoiled vegetables, it makes sense to use more spices when cooking meats. Furthermore, there is data to support the fact that many spices do have an antimicrobial or antifungal effect. At the same time, many of the most widely-used spices, like pepper, aren’t that great at the job; salt, for example, is more of a bacteria-killer than black pepper. There is also quite a lot unknown about how effective these spices will be at killing pathogens in the concentrations and conditions seen during cooking.

Another point that might help support this view is that predators, even obligate carnivores, will eat small amounts of plant matter. While we don’t exactly understand why (it could be simply to get more fibers and assist in digestion) it is possible that the instinct formed to help these animals destroy some of the bacteria in their food with the chemicals contained in the plants. Kind of like the theory proposes people do with spices.

Maybe it’s because your folks served spicy food

While evolutionary biologists like to treat everything in a very clean, cause-and-effect way, when talking about people’s preferences, there’s always an element of subjectivity. Our tastes, wants, and desires are — at least in part — shaped by what we’ve experienced so far. A food item can be our favorite not through the virtue of its taste alone, but also due to intangibles such as nostalgia, social mores, our personal experiences.

If you’re sensitive to spicy, you can train yourself to become desensitized to it. Through repeated exposure to low dosages of spicy compounds in our childhoods, then, we can acquire both a preference for and a resilience in the face of spicy foods.

This cultural hypothesis has two major limitations. First off, it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy — we like spicy food because we eat spicy food, so we eat more of it. While it may well be true that we acquire a taste for spiciness with exposure to it, it doesn’t explain why or when this behavior started. If eating spicy food is what makes us like spice, why did we start in the first place? This hypothesis doesn’t offer a starting point.

It explains why I’d like spicy currywurst, but not how I’d start to like it. Even if it’s delicious. Image credits Alex Fox.

Secondly, it doesn’t offer an explanation for why people seek increasingly higher levels of spice. Even if we accept, for the sake of the argument, that repeated exposure to spiciness makes us tolerate it better, the fact remains that people often seek out spiciness, especially in cultures that already include it a lot in their cuisine — such as Mexican or Chinese traditions. More to the point, they seek levels of spiciness in excess of what they can already tolerate. If the point is to make the sensation bearable, why do people keep seeking ever stronger burns? It would suggest that their goal isn’t to become accustomed to spicy, rather the sensation itself, or something associated with it. So, after all…

Maybe it’s because we like the burn

Capsaicin can make your mouth hurt a lot. In fact, if you’ve ever bitten into a mean pepper, you know it can make your whole body ache and tremble. You get sweaty, your eyes sting, some crying might be involved. This effect can stay with you for the whole length of your digestive tract (let’s put it that way).

It’s undeniable then that the effect this substance has on us is profoundly unpleasant and temporarily debilitating. And, while keeping in mind that you can die from eating too much capsaicin, it doesn’t actually harm you in any way. What it does, instead, is to trick your body into thinking it’s in danger.

Capsaicin binds to TrpV 1: the transient receptor potential cation channel subfamily V member 1, more easily rememberable as the vanilloid receptor 1. Despite the name, it’s a receptor that’s quite widespread in your body and whose main function is to keep tabs on and regulate your body temperature. Capsaicin wreaks havoc on TRPV1; it binds to it and activates it. While there’s literally no physical damage to your body when you munch on a pepper, to your nervous system, it looks like your mouth is suddenly, and violently, aflame. This effect is so powerful that our bodies’ response to the illusion — mostly in the form of inflammation and changes in heart rate — can kill us.

It is, after all, a substance designed to keep mammals away.

“Bite me mammal, I dare you!”. Image credits Antonio Jose Cespedes.

And yet, we have chili eating contests, a food containing a lot of capsaicin. We know for a fact that even people who say they like chili in particular are not immune to the burning sensation it produces. A paper published in 1980 (Rozin, Shiller), “The nature and acquisition of a preference for chili pepper by humans” notes that these individuals “come to like the same burning sensation that deters animals and humans that dislike chili; there is a clear hedonic shift [in their preferences]”, which could come down to “association with positive events, including enhancement of the taste of bland foods, postingestional effects, or social rewards”.

Another point they raise, however, one that I find much more entertaining, is that eating spicy foods is a way to toy with danger. Much like a roller coaster, that danger is (pretty much) contained. While we do understand that, on an intellectual level, our bodies don’t make the distinction. The physiological effects of being in danger and/or on fire, such as the rush produced by adrenaline or the feel-good sensation produced by the release of endorphins in our system, are still genuine.

In this light, spicy food can be seen as a facet of human thrill seeking — or what the authors refer to as “enjoyment of ‘constrained risks'”.

That bit about endorphins is also pretty interesting. They are a family of compounds that our bodies use to clamp down on stress and pain when needed. They’re not really a chemical family, more of a pharmacological convention, as several different substances with different structures are endorphins. But function-wise, they work very much like opioid drugs, causing euphoria and a host of other delightful effects, including, as mentioned, pain relief. They’re one of a group of molecules the Internet gleefully knows as the ‘happiness molecule’, alongside serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. It’s a pretty wide group because the Internet, overall, is not a very capable pharmacologist, but there is a kernel of truth at the core of the meme.

Eating spicy foods is a reliable and non-threatening way of squeezing out some of this happy juice from your brain. This would also explain why some people would seek ever-spicier foods to torture themselves with. As they become desensitized to a certain level of spicy, an ever higher threshold is needed to obtain the same endorphin reward.

By itself, this doesn’t really explain why some people are aficionados of spice — if eating spicy food is a painful way of enjoying some pleasure, why isn’t everyone doing it? We don’t know. There is some evidence (Byrnes, Hayes, 2012) that personality traits, especially ones such as thrill-seeking, as well as differences in our individual abilities to perceive substances like capsaicin, have a role to play. Someone who’s psychologically predisposed to taking risks, and has a lower abundance of TrpV 1 receptors on their mouth, I’d imagine, is more likely to engage in such behavior.

At the end of the day, the truth is we don’t know. If I had to take a wager, I’d say that all the hypotheses we’ve talked about today play a part. They’re not mutually exclusive. How much influence they have is, very likely, dependent on who you’re talking with. For some it’s the thrill, and the bragging rights. For others, it’s grandma’s cooking. People are complex, and so are the forces that drive us, so we probably won’t ever be able to tell for sure why any of us — nevermind all of us, as a species — would engage in such a behavior.

But the thing we do know is that, apart from a few species that have evolved specifically to be less sensitive to certain irritants, we are the only ones which seek out food that hurts to eat. Could that be a sign of how far we’ve come, that we’d want to seek a semblance of danger just to feel excited? Or is it the other way around, and such predisposition for risky behavior is what set us on the path to success? Very interesting questions to ponder the next time you’re praying for salvation over a bowl of chili.

The spicy history of how pumpkin spice got so popular

Autumn is here, and that can only mean one thing — everything now comes in a ‘pumpkin spice’ option. You might be surprised to hear, however, that this isn’t a modern fad; the spice mix goes back a long way.

Image via Pikrepo.

Despite its name, pumpkin spice doesn’t contain any pumpkin. The name stuck because this mix was originally marketed as flavoring for pumpkin-containing items such as pies or cakes. It hails from the 1930’s when US-based McCormick started selling the mix commercially under the name of ‘pumpkin pie spice’.

So if it’s not pumpkin, what is it? Well, it is a mixture of sweet spices — cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves — all ground together in various proportions; sometimes, it can also include allspice. It’s similar in composition to mixes typically added to British pudding. Although it doesn’t necessarily have the same proportions of each spice, it’s very likely that the two are related.

So where did the British get it from?

In very broad lines, as tended to be the case for most spices in Europe, the answer is South-East Asia.

Even today, the world’s chief source of nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) are the Malaku Islands of Indonesia, where the plant is endemic. This area accounts for around 90% of the global production of nutmeg, which earned it the moniker of the ‘Spice Islands‘. Malaysia also produces some nutmeg, as do the Caribbean islands. There is a species of ‘California nutmeg’ native to the US, but this isn’t related to true nutmeg and is not used as a spice.

Nutmeg fruit with the seed (from which the spice is made) and seed covering or ‘aril’ (from which mace is produced). Image via Pixabay.

Cinnamon is also chiefly produced in South and South-East Asia, with Indonesia, China, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka accounting for over 90% of total production. India, China, Nigeria, and Nepal grow most of the world’s ginger. Cloves used to come from Indonesia, but the species has since been transported to and successfully grown in other warm countries such as Mexico.

How did it all start

The individual spices that make up pumpkin spice have long been used in the places where they’re endemic.

Map of protohistoric spice trade routes of the Austronasian peoples  in the Indian Ocean. Image created by Wikiuser Obsidian Soul after Palgrave Macmillan.

Nutmeg, for example, is a traditional ingredient in Indian cuisine and employed as a medicinal plant in countries all around the Indian Ocean. It was also the lynchpin of bustling trade routes in the area; natives on the Banda Islands made a decent living by growing their crops of spices, while Arab and Indian traders made a fortune from carrying it around.

Europeans got their first taste of nutmeg from Arab traders. There is some evidence to suggest that it made its way around these parts back when Rome still had an empire. For example, Pliny the Elder describes several spices in his book Naturalis Historia, including nutmeg, and his description is accurate enough to suggest he had actually encountered the plant and wasn’t basing his words on hearsay. Keep in mind however that the Romans had a more wide-bearing definition of spices than we do today, which included medical plants, those used for perfumes or intended to be burnt, such as incense, plants that were used in makeup, and those that could be employed to preserve food. Pedanius Disocorides, a physician born in the Greek states of Asia Minor also describes over six hundred medicinal plants (including spices) coming from the Orient in his medical treatise De materia medica.

The land routes (red) and maritime routes (blue) of the Silk Road cca. the 11th century. Image via Wikimedia.

From works such as these, we gather that spices including nutmeg and cinnamon made their way to Europe either by ship from ports on the western coast of India, through the Red Sea and then Turkey, or on land routes through China on the “Via scitica” (the Scythian Road) — from Beijing through the Gobi Desert, Kazakhstan, over the Ural Mountains and the Caspian Sea, then over the Black Sea and Azov Sea, finally arriving at Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). Spices also sometimes traveled via the “Via serica” (literally “the Silk Road”), which was the avenue of trade and diplomacy between China and Europe (mostly the Roman Empire) in antiquity.

Although these trade routes of Antiquity introduced Europeans to the plants that would eventually culminate in the pumpkin spice, these were still extremely expensive commodities. By the time that Emperor Diocletian issued his Edict of Maximum Prices (“Edictum de Maximis pretiis”) in the year 301 AD, many spices were worth more than gold or jewels per the same unit of volume. It has to be mentioned that Roman coins were severely debased (devalued by inflation) at the time due to shenanigans by a long string of rulers during the Imperial Crisis, but these affected the prices of all commodities.

Spices were so extremely expensive because they needed to be transported over vast stretches of land or sea, changing hands several times, with everyone taking a cut (and increasing the price) in the process. This leads us nicely to:

The middle bit

Everybody was making bank from carrying spices towards Europe. So they kept the source a secret from those who bought them. Even in the days of Pliny, merchants would talk of winged beasts guarding the spices and other similarly fantastical tales, and Pliny mocked them relentlessly for it. But the mystery only deepened with the collapse of the Roman Empire when a lot of local knowledge (including that of far-away places) was lost.

A 17th century plaque to Dutch East India Company in Hoorn, Holland. Image via Wikimedia.

Although we know that spices such as nutmeg were still being used in Europe by the 8th century, where they came from was still a mystery. As far as the locals knew, spices grew on foreign ships and were harvested in Venice. By the time it reached Europe, a bag of nutmeg was worth more than most people made in a lifetime.

With that in mind, you’ll be so surprised to hear what happened after explorers such as Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India, and the islands of South-East Asia in the process, in around 1499. Yup, it was war.

Not with the natives, per se — although the Dutch East India Company would end up wiping out around 90% of them and enslaving the rest — and not instantly. Portuguese traders were very content to just buy the spices from the Bandanese at first, partly because it was still lucrative, partly because they tried (and failed) to establish fortifications on the island.

But there was, eventually, war between the European powers of Britain, Portugal, Spain, and the Dutch. Spices were stupidly expensive in Europe (at this time, nutmeg was still more expensive than gold), so everybody wanted to have a monopoly on them, overcharge, and keep all the profits. The fighting started after the Dutch established their first land bases in the area, around 1512, and raged on until the late 1660s.

“The surrender of the Prince Royal” by Willem van de Velde the Younger. Prince Royal was a massive English flagship surrendered to the Dutch after it hit a sandbank during the Four Days’ Battle, as both countries fought to over spice colonies and trade routes.

Britain managed to hold onto the island of Rhun (or Run) which became their first (but definitely not last) colony until 1667, when they traded it over for Manhattan. This gave the Dutch pretty much full control over all the nutmeg, cloves, and a bunch of other local spices that flowed towards Europe — so they had full control over how expensive they were (very expensive). From there, the Dutch East India Company (or ‘Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie’, VOC, in Dutch) grew into the richest company in history, estimated at around 7.8 trillion of your modern dollars. Apple and Google, for comparison, are worth ‘only’ $2 trillion and $1 trillion, respectively.

As a side-note, it can be argued that the globalized trade and interdependent markets of today wouldn’t exist in their current form if it weren’t for the VOC. It set the blueprint we still follow today: for example, it was the first-ever company to sell its shares publicly and to directly tie two economies on different continents together. All in all a very impressive endeavor, if you can overlook the astonishing depths of moral depravity and human suffering it was built on.

It would all however end eventually, as all things do, when in 1769 French-born Pierre Poivre smuggled nutmeg seedlings to the Mauritius islands. The company would eventually be dissolved, on the last day of the year 1799.

During the Napoleonic wars, the Netherlands were technically England’s enemies as they were kind of strong-armed into the French Empire. With this excuse in hand, the British invaded Dutch holdings in South-East Asia, and nutmeg became a cherished part of British culture (and was enthusiastically planted in any and all colonies where it would grow).

How we put it in a latte

Pumpkin spice today is heavily associated with autumn. It got here because the mix was advertised specifically for products containing pumpkin, such as pies or cakes, in the US (mainly due to the British legacy of using spices such as nutmeg and cloves in cakes and puddings). Since pumpkins were in season in the autumn, when those orange gourds were ripe for harvest (they don’t keep very well so most don’t last the winter), that’s when most Americans first encountered the mix, and an association formed.

Image via Pxfuel.

Over time, however, people figured out that you can sell pumpkin spice even sans pumpkin. So they did.

Spices today definitely don’t command the astronomical prices they did a mere 200 years ago — chiefly because most aren’t controlled by any monopolies. They’re definitely still valued, but they’re not reserved only for the tables of the rich and powerful any longer. Being much more affordable means that more people are willing to pay the extra cost just to enjoy the flavors they bring. So, naturally, people started putting it in coffee.

Pumpkin spice, in itself, isn’t even very unique — variations on this mix have been in use for the last 2 to 3 centuries now. It caught on specifically during the late 90s in coffee shops, and really took off with Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte, introduced in 2003.

Exactly why it’s so popular is debatable. However, it’s worth pointing out that cinnamon, nutmeg, and to some extent cloves as well, are heavily used in home-made food and sweets during the winter holidays, especially in British culture (which heavily informed American cooking and customs). Smells and aromas are strong elicitors of feelings and memories, so maybe these lattes bring us back to our emotional happy place, one where we’re enjoying the holidays with our family at home around the fire.

The unusual origins of our favorite spices

As we cook, we bring the world into our kitchens with the different spices that we use. Though we use spices regularly and think about how they change the flavor of our dishes, we don’t typically considered their origins. Many commonly used spices, such as thyme, basil, and oregano, come from plant leaves, but there are more exotic spices that have become commonplace in our kitchens that are grown in pretty interesting ways.

Image credits: pikrepo.

Here are some commonly used spices with interesting background stories:

Cinnamon

Cinnamon is a warming spice that we often associate with wintertime and holiday baking. It comes from the inner bark of cinnamon trees (genus Cinnamomum). Cinnamon trees are evergreen and have oval leaves, thick bark, and produce little round berries. The tree looks unsuspecting from the outside, but under the layers of outer bark lies the cinnamon layer. Although there are multiple species of cinnamon tree, only five are grown commercially, and they each have slightly different textures and aromas. Your cinnamon likely comes from China or Indonesia: they produced 75% of cinnamon sold globally in 2016. Cinnamon gets its distinctive smell and taste from its main essential oil, cinnamaldehyde, as well as other components.

A cinnamon tree. Image credits: Afifa Afrin.

The harvesting of cinnamon is a lengthy process. After the seed is planted, a cinnamon tree grows for about two years before it is »coppiced«, a fancy word meaning it is chopped to a stump. This coerces the plant to grow more as a bush. The following year about a dozen new shoots will grow out of the side of the stump. These shoots are then cut and they need to be processed quickly while the inner bark is still wet. The outer bark is scraped off and then the inner bark is loosened with a hammer and then detached in meter-long strips. These strips are dried out over a period of four to six hours. While drying they curl up. They are then cut into small pieces to become the cinnamon sticks that we recognize and enjoy using to flavor hot drinks, or later ground to be used in baking.

Black pepper

Where would we be without salt and pepper? Although pepper is now a basic spice in many cuisines, it has an exotic origin. It is native to southern and southeastern Asia but grows well in tropical regions. Vietnam is the largest pepper producer, growing 34%of pepper sold worldwide in 2013. Black pepper (Piper nigrum) is a flowering vine that produces round, red fruit called peppercorns. Most common pepper types come from the same plant but are prepared differently: black pepper comes from the cooked and dried unripe fruit, green pepper comes from the dried unripe fruit, and white pepper comes from the ripe fruit seeds. Pepper’s spiciness comes from the chemical compound piperine, making it different from chili peppers, which are spicy due to capsaicin.

Black pepper growing on a vine. Image credits: Royjose.

The woody vines grow up to 4 meters (13 feet) long so they are grown on supports. It takes the plant about four or five years to start producing fruit, and typically continues to do so for about seven years. One stem grows twenty to thirty fruit clusters. The harvesters know that it is time to harvest when one or two fruits at the base of the cluster start to turn red. If the harvesters are too late and the fruit ripens, they lose their pungency and fall off the plant. The clusters are cut and sun-dried before the individual peppercorns are removed. Black pepper is processed by briefly cooking the unripe peppercorns in water. The heat from cooking causes cell walls to burst and speeds up the browning process in the subsequent drying stage. After a few days of drying, the peppercorns have their characteristic appearance with thin, wrinkly, black skin.

Vanilla

Vanilla ice-cream, cakes, frosting, sugar… the subtle aroma of vanilla is extremely popular in baking and prepared food. Surely, you have seen pictures of vanilla flowers on food packaging, but did you know that it is an orchid? The plant originates from mesoamerica, but it is now grown globally. Vanilla pods are the fruit of the flower and are filled with an oily liquid and small seeds. Madagascar and Indonesia produce two-thirds of the world’s vanilla. The Mexican species Vanilla planifolia, otherwise known as flat-leaved vanilla, is predominantly grown for this beloved flavoring. There are two other vanilla species that are also commercially grown: V. Pompona and V. Tahitensis. The typical smell and taste of natural vanilla is very complex and comprised of hundreds of different compounds, including vanillin, acetaldehyde, and acetic acid. Synthetic vanilla is usually made from synthetically produced vanillin in ethanol.

Fresh vanilla flowers. Image credits: Malcolm Manners.

True vanilla is the second-most expensive spice because it takes a lot of effort to produce it. It grows as a vine and therefore needs support in order to grow. It needs to be pollinated by specific bee species or hummingbirds to produce a fruit. However, these pollinators only naturally reside in Mexico. Therefore, the flowers need to be pollinated by hand, which is very laborious. The harvest is also labor intensive, as each fruit ripens at its own pace, necessitating harvesters to check the plants daily. It is difficult to judge when the pod is ripe, but the current standard is to pick each pod by hand as it starts to split on one end. Then the vanilla needs to be cured before it can be sold. There are several methods for this process, but all of them involve the same basic steps: killing, sweating, slow-drying, and conditioning the vanilla beans.

Saffron

Saffron is not such a common household spice due to its price. It is, after all, the most expensive spice in the world at 5,000 USD per kg. The red threads are from the stigma and styles (the female part) of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus). The saffron that you buy most likely comes from Iran, as it produces 90% of the world’s saffron. Its taste and fragrance come from the phytochemicals picrocrocin and safranal. The carotenoid pigment, crocin, causes food spiced with saffron to have a golden color. You can know if the saffron that you buy is fresh if it is bright crimson, slightly moist, and clear of broken-off threads.

The saffron crocus with its distinctive crimson stigmas and styles. Image credits: Serpico.

The saffron crocus produces vegetatively through underground bulbs. This means that workers need to dig up these bulbs at the end of the season, divide them up, and replant them so they grow into new plants the next season. The plants grow rather late in the year and only flower mid-autumn. It is necessary to be super speedy in harvesting the saffron as the plants blossom at daybreak and wilt within the same day. The stigmas are dried as soon as they are removed. It is not surprising that saffron is so expensive when you think of how much work is involved. For one kilogram of saffron, 200,000 stigmas need to be handpicked from 70,000 flowers.

Cloves

Like cinnamon, cloves come to mind as a wintertime spice, perfect for mulled wine and as a touch of spice in cookies. Cloves are unopened flower buds from a tree, Syzygium aromaticum, that is native to Indonesia. The clove aroma comes from the essential oil eugenol, which is also commercially extracted from cloves. This essential oil is often used for personal hygiene products like toothpaste, soaps, and perfumes due to its antiseptic and anesthetic properties.

When these buds are dried they become the aromatic herb. Image credits: Steenbergs.

The clove tree is a tropic evergreen that grows 8-12 meters (26-39 feet) tall with large leaves and crimson flowers. The tree has to grow for at least six years before flowering to allow cloves to be harvested. The flower buds are pale and turn green and then red over the period of five to six months. When they turn red, they are ready for harvest. 1.5-2 centimeters (0.59-0.79 inches) are carefully snipped off the tip of the branch and dried for 4-5 days until they lose two thirds of their weight. As the buds dry, they turn brown and their main essential oil, eugenol, becomes more concentrated. Then they are ready for sale.

Cumin

Cumin adds an aromatic dimension to savory dishes. It is actually a seed from a flowering plant in the parsley family, Cuminum cyminum. If you’ve planted parsley in your garden, perhaps you’ve noticed the similarity between the seeds. It is native to south western Asia and currently China and India produce 70% of the world’s cumin and eat 90% of it. If you buy commercial birdseed, you will probably find cumin in the mix. It has been used as a spice for thousands of years; ancient Egyptians used it to spice food and preserve the dead and ancient Greeks loved it so much that they kept a »cumin shaker« on their dining tables.

The cumin plant. Image credits: Herbolario Allium.

The cumin plant is pretty hardy and resistant to drought. It likes hot temperatures and can be grown in the tropics or subtropics. The plants grow up to 0.3 m (1 ft) tall with thin and feathery leaves and small white flowers. The flowers don’t last long before developing into clusters of cumin seeds. The seeds are ready for harvest when they turn brown and then they are dried. It takes a long hot summer for a good cumin harvest.

Many of the spices that we enjoy in our cooking and baking are pretty laborious to produce! We can appreciate that more next time we crack some fresh black pepper or enjoy vanilla cake.