Spices 101: Basic Microbiology
Almost every food product relies on spices, seasonings, flavours and functional ingredients to make a product. Most processors don’t pause to think about how different qualities of ingredients can be a primary source of pathogens, reduced shelf life and food spoilage due to inherent levels of microbial contamination.
Imported herbs and spices are used in almost every product to enhance the flavour of our food, but some herbs and spices are prone to contamination with potentially harmful microbes like bacteria and fungi which can lead to outbreaks of consumer illness.
So how do we prevent contamination and eliminate any contamination that may have occurred? It is country dependent, but there are many ways of improving the safety of the ingredients used in a food product.. While there are many different ways of treating and processing the ingredients, they all have their upsides and drawbacks. For example, there are four basic ways to treat spices: gas flushing, steam pasteurization, radiation, and heat treatments.
Today we will be looking at the positives and negatives of each of these methods.
1. Gas Flushing
Gas flushing involves the use of preservative gas to stabilize and sanitize food ingredients, so that they may be stored safely for a longer period of time and reduce the possibility of unintentionally introducing harmful pathogens. It is recognized as being a highly effective method of killing microbes, however it can be perceived as an undesirable method of pathogen reduction.
Food grade nitrogen is also used to minimize oxidation and growth of microorganisms in finished and refrigerated products. Once the food is in a sealed package, the nitrogen gas is introduced – essentially replacing the oxygen in the package with nitrogen, and eliminating moisture.
2. Steam Pasteurization
Steam pasteurization is a common decontamination method for food ingredients. This process involves using steam to bring the product to a certain temperature for a period of time to kill any pathogen or spore. However, the prolonged exposure to steam and the difficulty in fully drying the ingredient afterwards, can result in residual moisture – creating the small window of opportunity for microbes to reoccur.
This is why it is not usually considered a completely effective solution. Steam pasteurization can affect the overall quality of the product and in some cases flash off small amounts of aromatic oils reducing the impact of the flavour or colour of the ingredient. It can also potentially leave behind a moist protein and carbohydrate source for a rapid regrowth of bacteria.
Don’t let the word scare you; Food irradiation does not mean your product will become radioactive and unsafe to eat. This method of sterilization is used to improve safety and shelf life of food such as spices, by eliminating microbes and insects. There are three FDA approved ways to go about food irradiation: Gamma rays (Cobalt 60 or Cesium 137), x-rays, or electron beams. Furthermore, the radiation dissipates after two weeks, leaving no traces and making the spices perfectly safe to consume.
This is the most effective method of eliminating bacteria and or pathogens in an ingredient, however it is an expensive process to use. The amounts being treated are restricted to the size of the processing chambers, and the process will then need to be a batch process versus a continuous process like some other methods.
4. Heat Treatments
Dry Heat Treatments can also be used to treat spices. It’s basically similar to steam pasteurization. This process involves bringing the spices or ingredients to a predetermined temperature for a required period of time to kill microorganisms and bacteria in the product. While it is seen as effective, it can alter the final organoleptic qualities of the product being treated. Also, in terms of antioxidant levels within spices, it is known that heat treatments can render antioxidants inactive (Source: Martin Polvka). It can also diminish the overall flavour of the spices.
While we know that there is a possible risk of contamination from ingredients used to produce food products, the likelihood remains fairly low. We constantly review and improve the processes to bring the risks as close as possible to zero and have rigorous testing and record keeping protocols to ensure our best efforts are being performed and tracked.
Sources and methods used to produce the ingredients can have a major impact on the levels of possible contamination. This is why it is a continuous effort by all major food companies to make the products that we sell as safe, flavourful and nutritious as possible.
A Quick Note On Organic Herbs and Spices
Non-organic spices will often have traces of pesticides and other chemicals in them since they are grown using chemical intervention. It’s important to note that organic spices are only treated with steam and heat, which means they do have a high risk of contamination.
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