Things to Consider When Buying Spices

Smelling the Spices at the MarketASTA now estimates some 60 percent of total U.S. spice consumption goes through industrial (food manufacturing) and foodservice channels. The spice trade broadly defines foodservice as a market where spices are used in food for on-premise consumption and the industrial market as one in which spices are used in products for later consumption. Today, however, definitions are difficult. For one thing, much of the food that is consumed in restaurants is no longer produced at the restaurant. Huge commissaries and/or food manufacturers frequently produce a high percentage of what is served.

But, more important than whether a spice buyer is a foodservice operator or food manufacturer is the question of how much spice is being purchased. The traditional needs of an individual restaurant or institution can usually be handled by one to 25 pound containers. As with retail packs, these small units normally contain the spice company’s “house” grade – a serviceable, all-purpose product designed to meet the varied needs of a menu. Foodservice buyers choose the brand which best suits their needs, looking for clean, tightly sealed and resealable containers in convenient sizes.

Industrial, or large-quantity purchasing operates on a different basis. Here, the buyer can specify various quality factors and sizes of grind as well as a wide range of extractive forms of spices. The smartest industrial purchasing procedure is based on four principles:

  1. Good specifications
  2. Good suppliers
  3. Good quality assurance procedures

A realistic attitude toward the price/quality/service relationship.


The end use dictates the specification for a spice and therefore a single specification won’t serve all purposes. ASTA is, however, in the process of developing recommendations for which quality attributes (i.e., moisture, volatile oil, etc.) should be specified for each spice in its various forms. Ranges may be suggested for some attributes and the listing of criteria will promote a uniform framework for spice specifications. These may. Be available by the time you see this document, but if not, your request will be held until they are. Ref. “Spice Specifications Criteria” in Technical Library section, page 15.


Basic to all spice extractives purchasing is the use of high quality suppliers. This is the only way to make sure that competitive bids are based on comparable merchandise. Such firms have the purchasing power and laboratory and processing controls to assure consistent quality at realistic prices. And, they can supply technical assistance that is invaluable. Your suppliers should be “partners” in setting specifications. You should have a relationship that permits you to discuss product you are seasoning, telling what you want the spices or extractives to do (in terms of flavor character, and strength, color, heat, etc.). Be aware that the nature of your product, the type of processing you give it, how long it will be held and how it will be prepared in the home all bear on the spice specifications. Giving your suppliers the full picture will help you set specifications that will satisfy your needs. They can also help you avoid the pitfalls of both over and under-specifying. For instance, it was once common to specify origin in specifications, i.e., Telicherry or Java pepper. Designating origins restricts the suppliers flexibility in sourcing desired quality. Better to set certain performance criteria by specifications and let the spice house do the shopping and blending to meet them reliably and consistently.

Quality Assurance

Anyone with specifications needs to back them up with a good system of sampling and testing. ASTA has established many methods for chemical analysis of the quality factors in spices and extractives (see Spice Technical Library section, pg. 16). A good spice and/or extractives supplier will also have tested every shipment against your specifications and will have a sample on file for reference in the event your lab finds any discrepancy. This is important because two labs won’t always agree and differences may be a matter of procedure rather than quality. It is equally important for your specifications to be ones which truly affect the performance of the spice in your particular product application (often, unnecessary attributes are included that are costly for the labs to test). In general, specifications should be written so that your lab can check them in a reasonable amount of time and a minimum of cost. Granulation specifications, for example, should be kept as simple as possible. Complex ones, though seemingly more accurate, can be costly both for the supplier trying to meet them and the customer’s lab which has to check them. Again, the right supplier can guide you in the practical aspects.


The best purchasing attitude on price is an understanding that there are no real “bargains” in spices. For that matter, the buyer shouldn’t even be looking for bargains in such a vital area as seasoning, especially since the very best spice ingredients are never more than a minor cost in the finished food product. Naturally, there can be differences in price suppliers, but major spreads should be approached with caution. All reputable suppliers face the same market situations and, if they offer the same level of service, are likely to have similar operating costs. As with most other purchasing, selling price is not necessarily your total cost of spice. If deliveries are not prompt, quality not consistent, technical advice inadequate or availability unreliable, the real cost can he much higher. In the last analysis, the best price is one that delivers desired quality and service at a reasonable cost.