How to Guard Your Kitchen from Spice Imposters: Part 1

How to Guard Your Kitchen from Spice Imposters: Part 1

In the world of spices, distinguishing genuine ones from their impostors is no easy task, often leading to uncertain outcomes. To guide you through this challenge, we have provided some clear and simple advice on how to avoid deceit and buy authentic spices. In this part, we’ll take a look at cinnamon, saffron, oregano, black pepper, and chili powder. 


The “true cinnamon” (Cinnamomum verum) or Ceylon cinnamon is made from the bark of an evergreen tree from the laurel family. It is native to Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), Burma, and the Malabar coast of India. It is often replaced or mixed with the so-called “false cinnamon. 

The “false cinnamon” (Cinnamomum cassia) or Cassia cinnamon also belongs to the Cinnamomum genus but is native to southern China and grows in much larger territory. Therefore, it is much more available and cheaper. 


Ceylon cinnamon sticks contain many thin, soft, and fragile layers that easily crumble. Cassia is rolled in thicker, harder sheets and has a rougher texture. Ceylon cinnamon is light brown, while cassia is darker and reddish brown. 


Ceylon cinnamon has a delicate, complex, sweet, and slightly citrusy flavor, while cassia has 

a stronger, more robust, slightly bitter flavor with a hint of heat. 

Home Test: 

The presence of cassia in cinnamon powder can be identified by adding a drop of iodine. If it turns blue, your cinnamon powder is not pure. 


Out of all spices, saffron is the one most likely to be counterfeit. Saffron is the stigma of the crocus flower (Crocus sativus) that grows from crocus bulbs. Each crocus bulb produces only one flower, and each flower has only three stigmas. No wonder saffron is more expensive than gold.  

Fake saffron can be made of corn silk threads, safflower, coconut filaments, or stigmas of other flowers, most often calendula. It is dyed red with artificial colors to imitate the color of real saffron. 


Saffron threads are trumpet-shaped with slightly thicker tips. Their color is rich burgundy or deep red. The color of their tips may appear slightly lighter. 

Taste and Aroma: 

Saffron aroma is sweet and hay-like while its taste is complex, earthy, floral, and warm, with a hint of bitterness. Fake saffron is most often tasteless or has a metallic taste. 

Home Test: 

To test saffron, simply place a few threads in warm water. The real saffron will turn the water yellow and the treads will remain red. The fake saffron, since artificially dyed, will turn the water red almost immediately and threads will lose their color. Or it will not color the water at all. 


Oregano is the most adulterated spice on the market. Genuine oregano is usually substituted or diluted with other substances. The goal of these fraudulent activities is to increase profits or meet the demand. Unfortunately, this means compromising the quality of the product. 

Authentic oregano (Origanum vulgare) is often substituted with lower-quality varieties or completely different plants, like olive, strawberry, myrtle, citrus or sumac leaves. Identifying genuine oregano can be difficult and relies mainly on its scent and flavor. 


Oregano is usually sold dried and grounded. The better option is to buy whole leaves which are less prone to fraud. Oregano leaves are small, oval, and vibrant green, when fresh, greenish gray when dried. The texture of the leaves is somewhat coarse, not too soft or powdery.  

Taste and Aroma: 

Genuine oregano is highly aromatic. Its aroma is strong and distinctive. When leaves are crushed between fingers, they release a strong and pleasant smell. Its flavor is strong, robust, and slightly bitter with warm and earthly tones. 

Home Test: 

There is no foolproof home test to detect fake or adulterated oregano except for inspecting its appearance, smell, and taste. As previously said, it is best to buy whole oregano leaves or grow oregano by yourself. Oregano is not a demanding plant and is quite easy to grow. 

Black Pepper

Black pepper is one of the world’s most popular spices. It has a huge economic value and therefore is highly susceptible to fraud. Various things like millet, coffee-bean skills, black pepper husk, and even ground-up stones can be found in ground pepper.  

Buying whole black peppercorns could be a solution for gettingthe real thing,” but black pepper is most often replaced with papaya seeds which look almost identical to black peppercorns. Papaya seeds are also highly available and cheap.  


Genuine black pepper has a slightly wrinkled, coarse texture and deep dark brown or black color. The peppercorns are relatively uniform in size and shape. Therefore, if peppercorns are too smooth and shiny or inconsistent in size and color, there is a large possibility that they are fake. 

Taste and Aroma: 

Black pepper has a strong and distinctive aroma and a robust and pungent flavor. Fake pepper usually lacks taste and heat. When crushed, real peppercorns will leave a bit of oil.  

Home Test: 

While some home tests can be useful, none of them is completely reliable. One way to check if peppercorns are genuine is by crushing them. Real peppercorns usually will not crash easily, while some fake ones will. On the other hand, papaya seeds can be hard to crush. Whether you have real peppercorn or papaya seeds can be determined by putting them into the water. Usually, real pepper will sink while papaya seeds will float, but this test is not very reliable. 

Chili Powder

Fake chili powder can contain various substances that are used to bulk up the product and increase profit. Chili is counterfeited in many ways. Some of the most common are: 

  • Adding fillers to increase the volume. These fillers can be flour, starch, ground rice, but also more sinister ones, like brick powder, talk, sand, or soapstone. 
  • Adding artificial colors to enhance the appearance. In the best-case scenario, chili powder is colored with beet dye, but very often, with a Sudan dye, a carcinogenic colorant used in industrial applications. 
  • Adding cheaper peppers, such as paprika or bell peppers to reduce the cost. 
  • Adding artificial flavors. Using chemicals designed to imitate the taste of chili peppers is one of the common fraudulent tactics for deceiving buyers. 


Authentic chili powder is made from grinding dried chili peppers and its appearance may vary based on the types of chili peppers used. The color is vivid and can range from deep red to brown.

The texture is fine and powdery, smooth, and without lumps. The color and texture should be uniform. If the color is unnatural or dull, that might be a sign of adulteration. Also, if the powder is gritty or has lumps, there is a significant risk of the presence of fillers.  

Taste and Aroma: 

Genuine chili powder has a strong and distinct aroma. The scent can vary from sweet and earthy to pungent and spicy, with peppery notes and some smokiness if they have been roasted.  

The flavor is primarily spicy, but the level of spiciness varies depending on the type of chili peppers used. Many chili powders have an earthy or smoky flavor if the peppers were previously dried or roasted. Milder peppers have a subtly sweet flavor that balances the heat. 

Darker chili peppers can have a hint of bitterness. 

Home Tests: 

While home tests may not offer foolproof results, they can indicate the authenticity of your chili powder. One such test is a simple water test. Take a glass of water and place some chili powder on its surface. Genuine chili powder will gradually settle to the bottom without leaving any color streaks. The chili powder that has been adulterated with artificial colors will most likely start descending into water immediately, leaving colored streaks. 

Another insightful test can detect traces of brick or soap powder. Add a teaspoon of chili powder to a glass of water. Take a small amount of residue and rub it in your hand. If you detect any grittiness, that could suggest the presence of brick powder or sand. If the residue feels smooth and soapy, there may be some soapstone in it.  

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