How safe are your spices?

How safe are your spices? »Play Video

Have you ever considered how safe your spices are? Frankly, neither had we until we saw the Food and Drug Administration's report on spice safety.

The report says 12 percent of imported dried spices contain filth.

"It makes sense," says Warren McPherson, a father shopping for oregano. "Sometimes I pour things out, and there's twigs and things in there. I'm assuming there's bugs, too."

Yup.

The report points to soil, twigs, rodent hair and insect fragments in dried spices.

About 7 percent of seasonings - most commonly leaf-based ones, like basil and oregano - contain bacteria including salmonella, which can cause illness.

The FDA report was based on tests of nearly 2,844 shipments of imported spices between 2007 and 2009. Spices from Mexico and India had the highest rates of salmonella contamination overall.

"We like a lot of Indian spices," says McPherson. "They come in bags, so I don't know what I'm getting with those."

To reduce your risk, there are three things you can do:

  • Consider buying bottled rather than bulk spices. Most spices admitted to the U.S. are irradiated or sterilized to kill any bad bacteria before they're packaged. But check your labels; we found some brands market themselves as non-irradiated.
  • If you use spices in your cooking, add them to the dish at the beginning. That way, any bacteria will likely be killed by the high heat. 
  • If you need spices in cold dishes, consider buying fresh herbs. Remember to wash them carefully, because even organic herbs can harbor bacteria, like E. coli, that could make you sick.

The good news? The FDA says most of that foreign matter- like insect parts - won't actually hurt you... just likely creep you out.

And don't stop shaking spices on your food. Several of them are good for your health.

Chili Pepper

  • Capsaicin, the compound that gives chili pepper its heat, may boost metabolism, increasing your ability to burn calories.
  • Capsaicin may also help suppress appetite.

Cinnamon

  • A daily half-teaspoon may help control blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels in people with Type 2 diabetes.

Sage

  • This herb may improve cognitive performance in people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease and may boost memory in young adults, too.

Turmeric

  • Curcumin, the substance that gives turmeric its yellow color, may ease osteoarthritis symptoms and slow proliferation of certain cancer cells.

Source:  Consumer Reports on Health, March 2014.