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The Benefits of Organic Spices, Herbs and Teas—An Upcoming Report from The Organic Center

Spices and aromatic dried herbs impart ample flavor when added to foods. Akin to spices, brewed tea leaves center many a daily ritual promoting mental stimulation or relaxation. Together, spices, herbs, and teas find use because of their desired flavors and medicinal and nutritional benefits, and their consumption is growing. Where do organic standards and production methods reveal noteworthy benefits?

This fall, The Organic Center will release a report showcasing how organic spices, herbs, and teas benefit people and the planet. Specifically, the Center will present science that shows: 1) quality benefits to consumers, 2) benefits for worker health and safety, 3) socioeconomic benefits, and 4) environmental benefits related to organic production and processing.

The report will also spotlight case studies from organic companies that are working above and beyond the organic standards to enhance environmental or socioeconomic outcomes along their supply chains. In conjunction with this report, The Organic Center will run a social media campaign featuring recipes from organic spice, herb, and tea companies to highlight their products.

Below is some of the content that will be expanded in the upcoming full report.

Organic Standards: What Does Organic Mean When It Comes to Spices and Teas?

Dried spices, herbs, and teas are subject to organic standards that apply to both farming and processing. This means that wherever these crops are grown, agricultural practices must maintain or improve the natural resources on and around the farm, and this must occur without the use of synthetic fertilizers and most chemical-based pesticides. This improves biodiversity and soil health, and reduces human health risks, greenhouse gases, and energy consumption associated with the manufacturing of these chemicals.

In non-organic processing, irradiation and ethylene oxide chemicals are allowed to manage food safety risks associated with the storage and transportation of spices, herbs, and teas. However, both of these practices, which have been linked to negative health outcomes, are prohibited in organic processing. Organic processors must use other effective and allowed practices, such as steam sterilization, to manage food safety risks.

Reducing chemical use during production and processing is especially important for dried botanical products, as the dehydration process concentrates any existing chemical residues on the fresh product. And the brewing process of teas can influence the transfer of residues by increasing the infusion of water-soluble pesticides. In short, organic standards help protect consumers, farming communities, and the environment.

Quality Benefits for Consumers

In addition to averting chemicals in the final products, organic production of spices, herbs, and teas allows consumers to avoid risk of dietary exposure to harmful chemicals and offers nutritional benefits like reduced heavy metals and more antioxidants in final products.

Several studies from various countries have tested for and detected pesticide residues in non-organic spice and tea products. Detected pesticides range from organophosphates to pyrethroid insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides. Detected levels range from trace to exceeding maximum allowances. Because most of these chemicals are prohibited in organic production, consumers can reduce their risk of dietary exposure when they consume organic products.

But the benefits of organic don’t stop there. Science also shows that organic spices, herbs, and teas can have higher concentrations of beneficial bioactive substances like vitamin C and antioxidants.

Benefits for Worker Health and Safety

Consumers should know that the benefits of organic spices, herbs, and teas go beyond quality when considering the numerous individuals who are involved in their production—from growing to processing—and where there may be less regulation of pesticides and their use. Research shows that occupational exposure to harmful pesticides is prevalent in conventional production of spices, herbs, and teas, and that organic production reduces this exposure.

“There’s a history of intense pesticides used in tea, which led to skin diseases and growths,” says Raj Vable from Young Mountain Tea about tea estates in India. “They have pictures in the processing facilities warning tea farmers to use organic, otherwise this is what happens.”

In the southern state of Kerala, where spices have been produced for centuries, a survey identified that all 300 pesticide applicators reported at least one symptom of acute pesticide poisoning (APP) from 30 cardamom plantations in the Idukki district region. APP is a major occupational hazard, especially for women, where pesticide use in these plantations is some of the highest in the world.

Organic production promotes alternative measures for pest control and when necessary, allows for the use of less-toxic pesticides, reducing the potential risk for harm to those who apply them.

Socioeconomic Benefits

With deep colonial roots, oppressive systems currently exist in many historical spice and tea producing regions today. For instance, business models from the colonial British era are still present in Indian tea estates: private entities own the land and facilities where the tea is grown and processed, and where tea farmers and workers live, controlling their choices for housing, food and healthcare, and subsidies for their children’s education.

Multiple studies show that producing spices and teas for the organic supply chain offers many social and economic benefits that help combat these oppressive systems. Organic production of spices, herbs, and teas can improve livelihood, opportunities, and social benefits for resource-poor, small-scale farmers, including more options for paid, local work that disproportionately benefits women of reproductive ages. The organic premium increases household incomes, and this can be boosted even further when combined with fair trade premiums.

Environmental Benefits

The body of science that shows the environmental benefits of organic farming is vast and growing, and these benefits also flow through the production systems of spices, herbs, and teas. The bulk of available studies focus on tea production and showcase benefits related to soil health, biodiversity, the reduction of heavy metals, and climate change mitigation.

Specifically, the reduction of chemical fertilizers and pesticide use in organic tea plantations improves soil microbial communities and water quality and has a positive impact on soil acidification. In one study, organic soil fertility management improved tea quality and reduced heavy metals in the soil and tea leaves.

Organic tea production, like organic production in general, is climate smart. Multiple studies found that when organic practices are used, soil in organic tea plantations sequestered more carbon, and more stable carbon. This was an especially strong outcome of long-term organic management of over 10 years, where gaps in yield also decreased. Improving the storage of soil organic carbon not only helps mitigate climate change for everyone, but is especially important locally, where it helps farmers better cope with the impacts of extreme weather.

Katrina Hunter is the Manager of Science Programs at The Organic Center (organic-center.org).

This article was originally published in the Fall 2022 Organic Report, you can view the full magazine here.