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Spices 101: Basic Microbiology

5 December 2023

Spices are the not-so-secret ingredients of food products obtained from seeds, roots, or barks of plants, and are used to enhance the taste and aroma of food. These natural substances add unique flavours, colours, and textures to various dishes, making them an indispensable part of culinary culture worldwide. 

In this article, we delve into the relationship between spices and food safety by discussing the benefits of spices in cooking and how they affect the safety of the food we eat. 

We also explore various methods for ensuring that spices are used safely in our meals. We explain how the quality of spices can influence the presence of harmful microbes and potentially affect shelf life and consumer health. 

Furthermore, we outline the proper handling and processing methods, highlighting practical ways to ensure the safety and quality of spices and offer insights into the diverse techniques employed in the spice-production industry.

Buying Spices: Best Practices 

When purchasing spices, a few practices can ensure you get the best quality and value for your money. These practices can also improve your culinary experience and guarantee that your dishes have the finest flavours.

  • Prioritize freshness: Opt for spices that are aromatic and rich in colour; these are likely to be the most flavourful. Fresh spices can significantly enhance the taste of your dishes, so check the packaging for information on the manufacturing or packaging date.
  • Choose reputable brands or suppliers: Established brands often prioritize quality, strictly adhere to rigorous production and packaging standards, and ensure that their spices are of higher quality. Researching trusted brands can help you make informed choices and avoid subpar products.
  • Consider the origin of the spices: Understanding where your spices come from can provide insights into their quality and flavour profiles. Certain regions are renowned for specific spices, and choosing authentic sources can add more depth to meals.
  • Certification: Look out for certain certifications such as organic, non-GMO, or fair trade. These certifications specify that the spices have been produced using ethical and sustainable practices. Such certifications ensure that your spices have met stringent quality standards and have been sourced responsibly.
  • Packaging matters: Buy spices packaged in airtight containers or resealable packets to preserve their freshness and flavour for extended periods. Proper packaging also prevents moisture and contamination, ensuring the spices maintain their quality over time.
  • Cooking requirements: Buy spices based on your particular culinary needs. Select spices based on your frequently prepared cuisines because different meals need distinct spice blends. Tailoring your spice selection to your cooking preferences can enrich the flavours of your dishes and add a personal touch to your culinary creations.
  • Consider storage: Proper storage is crucial for maintaining the flavour and potency of spices. Store them in a cool, dark, and dry place to prevent flavour loss and extend their shelf life. Also, avoid exposing your spices to sunlight or heat, as this can reduce their quality over time.
  • Pick value over price: For spices, lower prices do not equal better quality. While it might be tempting to opt for cheaper options, it is wiser to invest in high-quality spices that enhance the taste and aroma of your dishes. Quality spices also contribute to a more satisfying and enjoyable cooking experience. 

By following these best practices, you can ensure that you consistently acquire top-quality spices that will enrich your cooking, and create delightful and flavourful dishes every time.

What is the right way to store spices? 

The proper storage of spices is crucial to maintaining their freshness and flavour potency over time. Here is how you can ensure your spices remain in top condition:

  • Choose airtight containers: Opt for airtight glass jars or containers to preserve the aroma and flavour of your spices. This prevents air and moisture from seeping in and keeps the spices from losing their essence. 
  • Shield from light: Store your spices in a dark, cool place, and away from direct sunlight. Exposing your spices to light can cause a loss of flavour and potency over time. A pantry or a cabinet away from heat sources is an ideal storage spot.
  • Avoid heat and humidity: High temperature and humidity can reduce the quality of your spices, and cause them to clump and lose their flavour. Ensure your spices are stored in a cool and dry place to maintain their original taste and texture.
  • Label and date: Ensure you label each container with the correct spice name and the date of purchase or when it was packaged. This practice helps you keep track of their freshness and usage, enabling you to use the older, dated spices first.
  • Freeze sparingly: While freezing your spices can prolong their shelf life, it is advisable to freeze only specific kinds like whole spices or seeds and not powdered spices. Freezing helps retain freshness, but frequent temperature fluctuations can affect the flavour.
  • Avoid strong odours: Store spices separately from strong-smelling ingredients to prevent them from absorbing unwanted odours, which can alter their taste and fragrance.
  • Grind as needed: To maintain the best flavour, grind whole spices when needed instead of storing pre-ground versions. This helps preserve their essential oils and keeps the flavours intact for extended periods.
  • Regular checks: Routinely look for signs of spoilage, such as changes in colour, texture, or smell. If you notice any of these changes, replace the spice to ensure the quality and safety standards of your meals when you need them.

With the above simple storage methods, you can preserve the quality and freshness of your spices to ensure that they add that perfect touch of flavour to your dishes for a long time. 

Different Ways of Treating and Processing Spices

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.

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.

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.

Quality and Safety: A Culmination in Spice Production

In summary, safety in spices production and storage is essential to supply high-quality foods. While methods such as gas flushing, steam pasteurization, radiation, and heat treatments are used to eliminate harmful microbes and aid safety, they may also influence the taste and quality of the spices. 

Additionally, organic treatment options, although deemed safer, still carry a risk of contamination. Through constant testing and improvements, the food industry will continue to deliver products that are not only safe for consumption but also packed with flavour and nutrition.


The main cause of food contamination is the presence of harmful microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi in food. These pathogens can multiply rapidly if food is mishandled, stored improperly, or prepared in unsanitary conditions. Contamination can also occur through contact with contaminated surfaces, equipment, or hands. To prevent foodborne illnesses, it’s crucial to practice proper food handling, cooking, and storage techniques, as well as maintaining good personal hygiene.

Pasteurization is a food preservation process that involves heating a liquid (typically milk or juice) to a specific temperature for a certain period, then rapidly cooling it. This method destroys harmful bacteria and pathogens while preserving the liquid’s taste and nutritional value. Pasteurized products are safer for consumption because they have a reduced risk of causing foodborne illnesses compared to their unpasteurized counterparts.

Oxygen can lead to food spoilage through a process called oxidation. When food is exposed to oxygen, it can react with fats and proteins, leading to changes in texture, flavor, and nutritional content. This oxidative reaction can cause foods to become rancid, develop off-flavors, and lose their freshness. Packaging food in oxygen-impermeable materials or using vacuum sealing can help prevent oxidation and extend the shelf life of many products.

Temperature plays a significant role in food spoilage. Higher temperatures can promote the growth of microorganisms, such as bacteria and moulds, in food, causing it to spoil more quickly. Conversely, lower temperatures, like refrigeration or freezing, slow down the growth of these microorganisms and help preserve the quality and safety of food. Maintaining proper storage temperatures is essential to prevent bacterial proliferation and extend the freshness and shelf life of perishable items.

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