India is universally recognized as the "spice country" because of the occurrence of a wide variety of spices, condiments and herbs which are used in culinary preparations by population across the country. However the major focus for the spice extractive industry has been on Chilli, Black pepper, Ginger, Turmeric and Cardamom. While Cardamom oil is a much valued flavor material for hundreds of food preparations and beverages, whole spice extractives, more commonly referred to as oleoresins, have become important ingredients for the food industry for incorporation in many processed food products. Oleoresins with standard and reliable "active constituent" concentration have several advantages compared to use of whole spices, hence the preference by the industry.
Oleoresin technology remained an exclusive possession of some multinational companies covered by patent protection till the monopoly was broken by India through the efforts of CFTRI, Mysore. Attempts to stifle this indigenous development were made by changing the product specifications to restrict solvent residue levels and banning some of the solvents found to be efficient in getting increased yields. It is a tribute to Indian scientists that they were able to overcome these hurdles and enabled Indian spice industry to attain dominance in the international market. With an export of 6850 tons of oleoresins last year India accounted for more than 70% of global supply in this category. To day India has the awesome capability to extract about 42 different spices to meet every demand from the industry.
Against the above background comes the news that India has imported 400-500 tons of Chilli oleoresins from China which is not known to be a major producer of spice extractives. Probably the reputation Chinese have in dumping industrial products at ridiculously low cost must have lured some users to import from China and the lax import procedures also must have helped in clearing the imports without necessary safety assessment, especially with respect to solvent residue in the product. Whether China has developed its own technology or copied from others or the product really conforms to international standards is a mute question but India must be ready to face the "Dragon" in the coming years through constant technology upgrade for which adequate R & D investment is inevitable.
The above news may be alarming because oleoresins are increasingly becoming important for pharmaceutical industry with many applications being considered effective in treating several human afflictions. Curcuminoids in Turmeric, Piperine in Black pepper and Capsaicin in Red Chilli, are the three major materials of commercial importance. These phytochemicals have been proved to be of excellent nutraceutical value capable of preempting or curing most of the disease conditions that human race faces to day. Recent revelation that curcumin and piperine are effective in killing stem cells that differentiate into breast cancer cells, is of prime importance to the medical community. Similarly capsaicin has been proven to be effective in treating prostate cancer besides an excellent resource to treat inflammation, pain relief, fight sinus infection, irritable bowel syndrome, burning body fat, reducing cholesterol and triglycerides, dissolving clot inducing fibrin, preventing platelet aggregation and protecting the heart, relief from arthritis, psoriasis and diabetic neuropathy.
If these claims are true a time may come when oleoresins may not be available to the food industry with demand from the pharmaceutical industry outstripping that from the former. Probably cultivation of crops like Chilli, B. Pepper and Turmeric may expand several fold as commercial non-food crops! Such developments may also spur synthetic organic chemists to look for synthetic routes to make these much valued substances. Already synthetic capsaicin is available in the market and time may not be far off when synthetic versions of others start appearing. The present preference for natural sources for internal consumption is the only constraint that stands in the way of synthetic analogs dominating the market.