January 3, 2019
A dash of spice adds life to any meal—but when there is actual living matter in the spice jar, that’s a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, according to a recent report by The Huffington Post, we all should give our spices a close inspection before sprinkling them onto the entrée. They could be totally fine, but they also could be providing a cozy home—and a convenient food source—to a colony of insects.
Many cooks have experienced the utter shock and revulsion of opening a jar—especially a container of paprika—to find it moving. Sometimes the culprits are tiny bugs; others, it’s wee little worms, or even insect eggs.
The HuffPost interviewed Jody. Green, a board-certified entomologist at Purdue University, to find out more. Green said that, although many spices invite insect invasion— including turmeric, coriander, cumin, fennel and dry ginger—the creepy crawlies really seem to love spices made of peppers.
″Spices are rich in minerals and vitamins,” she told the online news outlet—and paprika and cayenne have the highest prevalence of insect filth, compared to other imported spices.”
Green noted that insects are “particularly fond of products derived from dried sweet peppers/chiles/red pepper—products like red pepper flakes, paprika, chili powder, and cayenne.” Indeed, she said, “The pepper family appears to contain the nutritional requirements necessary for multiple generations of stored product beetles to successfully sustain life.”
Paprika is especially prone to insect invasion because it is a spice that cooks in the United States don’t use very often. It sits in our spice racks for long periods of time, allowing insects to do their thing, unbothered. Specifically, the most common pests found in spices, particularly paprika and cayenne, are the cigarette beetle and the drugstore beetle.
Green described both of the beetle breeds as reddish-brown and “about the size of a sesame seed.” They’re active fliers, so it’s not uncommon to hear them hitting surfaces in your kitchen, if they escape the spice jar. Green explained that they live in dried tobacco and pharmaceuticals (as their name implies), but also pet food, cereal, spices, and dried fruit.
Sometimes your spices may look like they’re infested with tiny worms, but they actually are the same beetles, just in baby form. “These particular pests … undergo a complete metamorphosis (like a butterfly),” Green told the daily news outlet. “They have an egg, larva, pupa, and [an] adult stage. The worms that [you see in the] spice are the larval form. They are cream-colored, have three pairs of short legs, an orange head capsule, dense hair, and chewing mouthparts.”
Yuck! And since most of the spices consumed in America have been imported, and “it is not rare for imported product to be contaminated with ‘filth’ (i.e. insects parts),” there is every chance a product could have been infested after harvest, but before coming to a store near you.
However, she told The HuffPost, they also can “worm their way in” at the processing plant or in the store. “Cigarette beetles and drugstore beetles have been known to penetrate through packaging, tin foil, plastic, and sheet metal.”
To stop bugs from making a meal of your spices, here’s what Green suggested during her interview:
- Inspect the product at the store. Look for damaged packaging. If the container is transparent, look for larvae and beetles inside.
- Stick your spices in the freezer for four days (make sure your freezer is set at zero degrees Fahrenheit) before putting them in your spice rack or pantry.
- If you’ve bought your spice in bulk, keep what you’re saving for future use in the freezer. Before freezing, divide it into glass containers that are airtight.
- Practice stock rotation using the FIFO (first in, first out) rule. Use your oldest products first, and keep them at the front of your pantry so you’ll be more likely to grab them first. Then move on to newer products, which you keep at the back of the pantry and rotate forward when you’re ready to use them.
- Clean up any spills in your kitchen as soon as they happen.
- Commercial pheromone traps are available, but they’re species-specific and may not be good at decreasing the population, as they attract a single sex and the pests may have already mated.
Now go forth and inspect your spices with great trepidation.
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