Fresh Mint
Fresh mint: Why is this lovely-looking herb a “Bad Actor?” You’ll find out below. Photo by Ben Fink courtesy Suvir Saran from his book, Indian Home Cooking, A Fresh Introduction to Indian Food, by Suvir Saran and Stephanie Lyness.



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STEPHANIE ZONIS focuses on good foods and the people who produce them.



May 2007
Updated August 2009

Product Reviews / NutriNibbles

[Organic] Spice Is Nice

Organic Herbs & Spices

Click here to read other months’ Organic Matter columns

CAPSULE REPORT: Many people are concerned about buying organic apples and lettuce, but don’t think twice about buying conventionally-grown herbs and spices. Surprise: More than 35 different fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides were used on docile-seeming mint plants. This article will open your eyes—and at least have you washing your herbs more diligently!

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Everything else seems to be available in organic form these days; why not herbs and spices? The truth is, herbs and spices are ideal candidates for organics, as both are agricultural products. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but there are technical differences. Herbs, which may be dried or fresh, come from the leafy part of a plant. Spices, usually used in dried form, are from seeds, roots, fruit, or bark, and most originate in tropical or semi-tropical regions. It’s possible for one plant to contain both herb and spice; the coriander plant’s leaves are the herb most people call “cilantro,” while coriander seeds are a spice in their own right.

The American appetite for herbs and spices has skyrocketed in recent years for a number of reasons. Among these are the fact that herbs and spices can add sparkle to reduced-fat foods, and there’s been a great increase in this country’s appetite for foods from other cuisines, particularly, in the last decade, those that are spicy-hot. In 1995, according to the USDA, total consumption of spices in the U.S. was nearly 800 million pounds. By 2000, that figure was over 950 million pounds. In 2005, the latest year for which data are available, total spice consumption in America had reached over 1.6 billion pounds.

Why Choose Organic Spices? Reason #1: No Chemical Pesticides

You’ll find far more different herbs and spices available to you these days than you would have even ten years ago, along with an impressively lengthy list of brand names. But why should you consider organic herbs and spices? You can find perfectly good conventionally-grown examples, right? Well, it turns out that “perfectly good” may be a matter of definition. As agricultural products, conventionally-produced herbs and spices are subject to attacks from a variety of pests, fungi, molds, and diseases, exactly as are other crops. And these plant parts that give so much flavor to our foods are bathed in a “cocktail” of chemicals while they’re grown, an action that can be bad for the environment and farm workers and may leave pesticide residue on your condiments.

Via the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA, the North American Branch of PAN, the Pesticide Action Network), information on crops grown in California is easily available. Let’s examine data about pesticide use from the most recent information available (2005). This data is only for herbs and spices grown in that state, and excludes all other agricultural crops; it accounts for farm and professional pesticide use only and excludes home gardening use and most institutional pesticide use. We’ll take mint as an example.
Parsley: Tasty herb or pesticide-ridden
“Bad Actor?” Photo by Iva Villi | Sxc.
  • Mint is an herb with which everyone is familiar, and it’s used to flavor a wide variety of foods. In 2005, in California, over 35 different fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides were used on mint plants. These ranged from the monoethanolamine salt Clopyralid (an herbicide) to the insect growth regulator Hexythiazox to Dicofol, an insecticide. In fairness, a handful of the pesticides employed are microbial in origin, such as the HD-1 strain of dried Bacillus thuringiensis, subspecies Kurstaki, an insecticide. None of these microbial-origin fungicides/insecticides has been shown to be overtly harmful to people or the environment; there is no so-called “weight-of-the-evidence” summary that demonstrates toxicity or potential carcinogenicity. But of the three dozen pesticides used on mint, thirteen are of special interest, because they’re what PAN calls “Bad Actors.”
  • The Bad Actor List, developed by PAN and Californians for Pesticide Reform (CPR), is a roster of chemicals responsible for at least one of the following: they are known contaminants of groundwater (as designated by the state of CA); they are reproductive or developmental toxic agents; they are known or probable carcinogens; they have high acute toxicity (this label refers to the effects of immediate exposure, considered to be 0 to 7 days, to a pesticide; pesticides that are highly acutely toxic can be lethal even at very low doses); and/or they are neurotoxic cholinesterase (ChE) inhibitors (cholinesterase is an enzyme that facilitates the transmission of nerve impulses). Pesticides that are ChE inhibitors can disable this enzyme, resulting in a variety of symptoms ranging from tremors and weakness up to paralysis and death. Most ChE inhibitors are insecticides.
  • Although the PAN database lists pesticides that are known or suspected endocrine disruptors (ED), no official list of EDs has been issued as of this time. (According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the “endocrine system is a complex network of glands and hormones that regulates many of the body's functions, including growth, development and maturation, as well as the way various organs operate.”
Chiles: hot stuff but “Bad Actors.”
There are numerous endocrine glands in the body, including the pituitary, thyroid, adrenal, pancreas, ovaries, and testes. Endocrine disruptors are manmade chemicals that mimic or block hormones and disrupt normal functions of the body. There is direct evidence that humans are susceptible to endocrine disruptors, most spectacularly and disastrously through diethylstilbestrol, or DES. In the 1950s and 1960s, pregnant women were prescribed the synthetic estrogen DES to prevent miscarriages. DES failed in its mission, but it also caused birth defects, immune system suppression and rare vaginal cancers in the children of women who took it.
  • In the case of mint, the Bad Actors include the insecticide Acephate, a known ChE inhibitor, possible carcinogen and potential groundwater contaminant; the sodium salt Bentazon (an herbicide), with high acute toxicity and a known groundwater contaminant; and the fungicide Myclobutanil, a developmental/reproductive toxin. Remember, all of this is for one type of plant, grown in one state, in one country, in one year. Worse still, it happened in the U.S. This a country with some form of regulations involving pesticides and insecticides, how they’re to be used, handled, stored, etc.; many other nations have guidelines for pesticides far less strict and far more loosely-enforced, if indeed any restrictions exist at all. In addition, this is a country of extraordinary wealth, power, and resources. Shouldn’t we be leading the way in demonstrating that those pesticides that have proven harmful to people and/or the environment can be replaced with less-damaging substitutes, without adverse effects on the yield and quality of crops? 
Lest you think I’ve taken the very worst example to scare you, I promise you that isn’t the case. The herb sage, grown in California in 2005, lists only eight pesticides used, and none was on the Bad Actor list. But both parsley and chile peppers had more than 40 pesticides used on them. In the case of parsley, eleven of these were Bad Actors, including Malathion. Malathion is a ChE inhibitor of moderate acute toxicity, it’s a suspected endocrine disruptor, a possible carcinogen, and a potential groundwater contaminant. Chili peppers had 49 pesticides used on them; more than 20 were Bad Actors. Just to choose one, there is the insecticide/nematicide/plant growth regulator Carbaryl. It’s a ChE inhibitor and a carcinogen. Of moderate acute toxicity, it’s also a suspected endocrine disruptor and a potential groundwater contaminant.
This pretty bouquet of sage is grown with only
eight pesticides. But conventionally-grown herbs
and spices are subject to sterilization by methods
that are not necessarily reassuring. Photo by
Emiliano Spada|Sxc.


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