Saturday, August 22, 2009


Spices are known for their characteristic aroma and taste and Asians population use them extensively in their culinary preparations. Most commonly used spices include Chilli, Black Pepper, Ginger, Turmeric and Cardamom while there are two dozen more exotic spices used in smaller quantities ti impart flavor and taste to hundreds of food preparations. Generally a spice has two main components, the fixed oils or resins which are not volatile and the volatile  odorous fraction. Fixed oils provide the typical taste and can be recovered only by solvent extraction. The volatile fraction containing the essential oil, is obtained by steam distillation. Blending together the resin and the essential oil gives commercially marketed oleoresins. Both oleoresins and essential oils are available in powder forms, made by encapsulation technology. Pure chemicals like capsaicin from chilli, curcumin from turmeric and a few others are commercially valuable for their applications in food formulations and pharma products.

Organic foods which are coming to the fore because of apprehensions on account of indiscriminate use of organic pesticides on agricultural crops depend on natural pesticidal formulations containing plant derived substances with practically no toxicity. Plant derived pesticides have come to stay and so far the major ones have been based on pyrethrum and neem oil but their effectiveness is rather limited. Traditional Indian practices point out to the use of many spices in fighting infections and the Ayurveda system depends significantly on plant based phytochemicals to cure many human health problems.

Western world seems to be waking up to the potential of spices and the oils recovered from them to protecting agricultural crops from many pests that cause massive damages in the field, if not treated with modern pesticides with high toxicity. According to their new 'discovery' essential oils from rosemary, thyme, clove and mint can provide eco-friendly pesticides for raising organic fruits and vegetables. They are being touted as environment-friendly alternatives to synthetic pesticides harmful to humans and animals. Mixtures of small amounts of two to four different oils in water have been found to be efficient in either killing the insects out right or repelling them away from the field. Many essential oils have broad insecticidal activity and currently they are being used in growing crops like strawberry, spinach, tomato etc. Farm sector finds it convenient to use them as they do not need any mandatory approvals, no resistance has been noticed on continued use, no health risk for farm workers and others around and in addition most of them are repellents for mosquitoes, flies and cockroaches.

Combined with pyrethrum many essential oils from herbs and spices like mint, clove, lavender, thyme, rosemary have been found to be more effective for organic farming and such products are being offered in many application formats like dusts, aerosol cans, liquid concentrates and wettable powders. What may be of concern is whether these culinary spices will be diverted in large quantities from the consumption table to the agricultural fields, once the organic food business grows beyond the current level of 2-3% of the food chain. It is estimated that more than 35 million hectares of land under cultivation of organic foods in 138 countries generate a business worth about $ 40 billion, with an annual growth of $5 billion an year.Countries like India should gear themselves for increasing the production of spices to meet the newly emerging demand for protecting the interests of actual consumers as well as boosting exports for non-food purpose. 

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