Why You Should Be Buying Sustainable Spices and Where to Find Them

Prioritizing single-origin spices can make a huge difference in the lives of farmers.

From consciously choosing to buy fair trade coffee and chocolate and picking better fish options to shopping for sustainable wine and switching to seasonal farm boxes from local CSAs, we are continually learning how to be better shoppers, one purchase at a time. Now, it's time we consider where the most essential elements of our culinary repertoire come from: our spices.

The Origins of Spice Trading

One of the earliest written records of the use of spices dates back to antiquity—ancient Egyptians used herbs to preserve health, perfume the body, in the kitchen, and in the warding off of insects and evil. Spices like cinnamon, marjoram, anise, and cumin became an integral part of the embalming process, providing an appeasing fragrance against the odors of death and decay.

Sourced from India, China, and Southeast Asia, the spices eventually made their way down the East African Coast in ancient outrigger canoes. Arab traders, who served as middlemen, were fiercely protective of this lucrative business of spice trading and did everything to keep producer and consumer apart—a tradition that still continues in the modern spice trade.

Today, large supply chains often mean that small spice farmers get paid far less than they are worth. A continuing lack of transparency in the spice trade—a result of colonialism and cutthroat local middlemen—makes shopping for spices quite the challenge for consumers. It may take multiple years before the spices make it to your pantry, explains Nareena Switlo, co-founder of Naledo, a direct-to-consumer, single-origin company focused on wildcrafted turmeric.

Traditionally, Switlo explains, after farmers sell their spice harvests, the crops take quite the convoluted journey before they're bottled, they're exchanged between several middlemen—including auction houses, traders, importers, and exporters—before finally being packaged by a spice brand and sold to you. And, they're not just sourced from one farm or region within a country; the spices likely come from hundreds of farms all across the world.

The Importance of Single-Origin Spices

Defined as spices grown in one farm or a small network of farms in a particular region, single-origin spices are high in quality thanks to their relatively short supply chain. In Naledo's case, it's 300 small-scale growers from Toledo, the southernmost district in Belize, that supply wildcrafted Alleppey turmeric needed to make their signature turmeric paste.

At 7.6 percent, the paste's high curcuminoid content—in comparison, most turmeric powders on the market may have 1.5 percent—is all thanks to the conditions under which it is grown: wild. "There are no agricultural inputs whatsoever—so no watering, no cleaning the grass, or pulling the weeds out," Switlo explains. "And, best of all the turmeric is self-propagating. So, not only does this type of growing help to preserve biodiversity, but it's extremely sustainable as well."

And consumers are starting to take notice. According to research published last year by IBM's Institute for Business Value, consumers are actively searching for brands that align with their values. Whether it be while grocery shopping, brewing your daily cup of joe, or choosing where to dine, over 70 percent of those surveyed said they would pay a 35 percent premium if it meant that the products were not only environmentally responsible and sustainable but provided clear transparency in their supply chains.

For Naledo, the decision to source their turmeric from Belize was three-fold. "Wildcrafted turmeric has incredibly high levels of curcumin. Secondly, we can make a real impact with smaller scale growers," says Switlo. "And finally, our turmeric is of a very high quality—we don't use pesticides or herbicides. A lot of times, you'll find that turmeric sourced from India has been adulterated with lead and flour by middlemen, who want to increase the spice's weight, color and volume."

Sustainability and the Spice Pantry

The past five years have seen an active increase in the focus on sustainability in all aspects of the food industry. Businesses like Naledo focus not just on caring for the environment but also on the communities their products come from. "One thing I found when learning about the spice supply chain is that growers in India—which is the world's main producer of turmeric—they get so little for all of their hard work," Switlo shares. "For Naledo to be a direct trade enterprise means that there's no middle agent. We get to pay our growers in Belize six times the fair trade price for fresh turmeric, so they're really getting a wonderful price for their crop."

Developing equitable supply chains and providing alternative income sources to small-holder farmers in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal is the ethos behind Moringa What, a single-origin, direct-to-consumer company in India. Founded in 2015 by Ekom Mamik, Moringa What focuses solely on fresh powders and oils from indigenous varieties of the highly nutritious Moringa Oleifera tree. "As a company, we do this to help farmers with income opportunities and employment opportunities. We want to keep children of our farmers in farming because right now they're leaving," explains Mamik.

Having farmers own more of the supply chain allows them and their families to be more involved in the overall process—of seeing their crops go from cultivation and harvest to production and packaging. "They're able to do the marketing, run a website and even manage local sales," Mamik says. "Because if we don't encourage this, then over time, if none of the family members are interested, the land will be sold to big corps or construction companies."

As the effects of climate change continue to impact food production and agriculture, both Switlo and Mamik encourage their growers to practice intercropping. Defined as the agricultural process of growing two or more different crops in the same area simultaneously, intercropping increases overall yield and provides farmers with additional insurance against crop failure. "We want them to be growing a bunch of other crops like coconut and banana, so that they are self-sustainable," says Mamik. "Because if one specific crop fails, they can still feed their families and still have viable income opportunities."

Switlo agrees. "When we have growers come to the factory with their turmeric—that might be a mother who has been on a bus with her daughter who didn't have any milk because she was unable to lactate," she explains. "And by selling her wildcrafted turmeric, she can now afford to buy milk for her daughter. When you see that impact face-to-face, and our lovely team of wonderful young people, you just go to work every day knowing something good is happening."

Sustainable Spice Brands to Shop

Whether you're prioritizing sustainability in all your grocery store purchases or looking for new flavors to add to your pantry, here are five women-owned sustainable spice brands that are worth checking out:

Cinnamon Tree Organics

Founded by Nadee Bandaranayake, Cinnamon Tree Organics focuses on heirloom varieties of spices from the tropical South Asian island of Sri Lanka. In addition to sourcing single-origin "true" cinnamon, aka Ceylon cinnamon that's native to the island, Bandaranayake works with several small-scale growers to sell nutmeg, moringa, cloves, cardamom, ginger, lemongrass, chili flakes, cayenne, black and white pepper, turmeric, Sri Lankan curry powder, and masala chai.

Daphnis and Chloe

Founded in 2013 by Evangelia Koutsovoulou, Daphnis and Chloe is an Athens-based single-origin, direct-to-consumer spice company focused on Mediterranean and Greek herbs and spices. Named after the ancient Greek romance tale, the brand focuses on sourcing wildcrafted plants from small organic farmers all across the Greek archipelago. Oregano, lemon verbena, sage, thyme, bay leaves, fennel, mint, and smoked chili flakes (from mild red horn peppers) are all on offer.

Diaspora Co.

Mumbai-born Sana Javeri Kadri launched Diaspora Co. in 2017 after learning about the lack of transparency that still exists in the modern spice trade. Today, the company works with 12 farmers across six Indian states, paying them approximately six times more than the commodity spice price. Single-origin spices such as turmeric, pepper, mace, cardamom, coriander, saffron, and nutmeg are all harvested the same year that they are sold online, ensuring a product that's insanely fresh and potent.

Moringa What

Volunteering at a model, sustainable village for HIV-affected grandparents and children in Kenya led founder Ekom Mamik to rediscover the benefits of a tree of her childhood spent in the Himalayan foothills: the Moringa Oleifera tree. In 2015, she launched Moringa What, working in direct collaboration with smallholder farmers in India to produce a line of non-toxic products from indigenous varieties of moringa, including a powder, cold-pressed oil, and Ayurvedic face mask.


Founded by mother-daughter duo, Umeeda and Nareena Switlo, Naledo's signature product is Truly Turmeric, a turmeric paste made from freshly ground turmeric root that grows wild—sans any agricultural inputs—in Belize. This B-corp social enterprise works directly with 300 small-scale growers in Toledo, the country's southernmost district, to harvest wild turmeric root, a spice originally brought over to Central America by south Indian indentured servants in the 1700s. Unlike traditional turmeric powders, which can be pungent and bitter, Naledo's turmeric paste is earthy and citrusy, with a 7.6 percent curcuminoid content—the compounds responsible for turmeric's renowned anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.

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