Every time a customer walks into the Spice & Tea Exchange in Port Jefferson, the ambrosial aroma of apple, cinnamon and mint wafts across their faces, welcoming them into a store filled with rows of spices, teas, sugars and herbs.
This past summer, the spice boutique, which promotes healthy eating and home cooking, opened its doors to customers, becoming like a grocery store for spices but taking it further by allowing customers to create their own special spice blends.
The Spice & Tea Exchange is a franchise that first opened in Florida in 2008 and currently has 68 stores. The Port Jefferson store, which opened in July, is the first and only one in New York, and has hundreds of blends of peppers, spices, salts and seasonings.
The custom blends and seasonings are inspired by recipes from all around the world and feature seasoning staples such as Korean BBQ Rub, Thai and Indian curries and the Latin adobo. They don’t have additives or fillers, which many grocery stores use to increase the shelf life of spices.
“We’ve had somebody from down in the Carolinas come in and looked at our Carolina Barbecue Spice Blend, said it was perfect,” Diane Wahne, co-owner of the Spice & Tea Exchange, said. “Right on the money. How she’s used to having it down south.”
According to a 2018 report by the market research company Prescient & Strategic Intelligence, the spice market is currently growing at a 6 percent rate because of an increase in awareness of the medical benefits of spices and will be worth over $30 million by 2023.
Early civilizations such as the Chinese Empires, the Romans and Babylonians used spices and herbs for thousands of years and their descendants still use them today. The Silk Road traded spices throughout Asia and Europe. During outbreaks of major plagues and diseases throughout history, herbs such as oregano, camphor and garlic were used because of their medicinal benefits, such as germicidal properties.
“Spices have the power to transform everything we eat,” Ethan Frisch, spice expert and co-owner of New York-based e-commerce spice company Burlap & Barrel, said. “They add flavor and health benefits, but they also connect other ingredients to deeper culinary traditions and provide a backdrop of global history, trade routes, conflict, commerce and exploration.”
The American per capita intake of spices has more than tripled since 1966, going from 1.2 pounds annually to 3.7 pounds in 2015, since people are demanding more ethnic cuisines.
Customer Rahe Rudolphi said she likes the choices and variety of the teas and spices, which don’t need additional salt or sugars to make them taste good since they have potent flavors. She goes to open markets, tea and cheese shops to purchase her goods as she prefers the freshness of natural teas and spices.
“A lot of the stuff you can’t even get at the grocery store,” Rudolphi said. “This place feels homey, and it makes you want to look around.”
The 36 teas sold in the Spice & Tea Exchange are sold as loose-leaf tea in batches. “Tea bags are bad for making tea and don’t allow the leaves to expand,” Tianna Couch, an employee at the Port Jefferson location, said.
“We have a lot of people that come in that can’t have salt, whether they have heart issues, diabetes, kidney issues. There’s a lot of things that don’t have salt in it,” Wahne, a nurse, said. “It kind of helps knowing what you have and shouldn’t have. You don’t have to be a five-star chef to have a good meal.”
Herbs and spices have antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that are the most potent sources on the planet, Cynthia Sass, nutritionist, health expert and the sports nutrition consultant for the New York Yankees major league team, said.
“I highly recommend incorporating fresh and dry herbs and spices into every meal,” Sass said, listing examples like rosemary, cilantro and ginger. “In addition to adding flavor and aroma to meals and reducing inflammation, herbs and spices have been shown to help boost satiety [the feeling of being full], and increase metabolism. Some, like cinnamon, have also been shown to regulate blood sugar and insulin levels.”
Some of the products in the store are fair trade, which abides by strict guidelines and certifications set to make sure local farmers around the world are paid decent wages and treated in fair conditions.
“There’s a growing demand for fair-trade products since they’re sustainably sourced and ethical,” Rachel Spence, the communications and engagement manager at the Fair Trade Federation, said. Companies don’t have to be organic to be fair trade. One of the fair trade principles promotes environmental stewardship, which goes hand in hand with the natural and organic movement.
“The mission behind it is to help with alleviating poverty in an equitable trading system,” Spence said. “One of the reasons why it’s very important is because it’s a way to do international development that’s very sustainable through helping folks with their livelihood in the long term.”
More companies and markets are opening up to the idea of being fair trade and the products are on par with high quality and artisanal goods, which is developed through highly skilled craftsmanship and work. The products aren’t necessarily more expensive since customers are paying for what they get.”
In a 2017 interview with Food + Tech Connect, a food news website, Frisch said that the structure of the international spice trade is still very antiquated. It is centered around systems of colonialism that value Western middlemen more than farmers who have been growing these plants for several generations.
“Not only do the layers of middlemen drive down revenue for smallholder farmers while driving up prices for consumers,” Frisch said, “but they lengthen the time it takes for spices to travel from the farm to our kitchens, which means our spices are stale even before they sit in a kitchen cupboard for three years. Under the current system, everyone loses except the middlemen.”
Medicinal plant seller of e-commerce website Santo Products, Daniel Roman, uses holistic medicine. His knowledge is based on history, religion, and spiritual traditions. His herbs are made in his garden and he says that the herbal industry focuses more on quantity rather than quality to make a larger profit.
“We have realized that herbal medicine, teas, and minerals are noninvasive. Since we are what we eat/consume, when we consume living foods we feel good, feel alive, and a sense of well being is being energetically received and transmitted throughout the body,” Roman said. “In a time of past, herbs were only collected by season. Modern man has learned to manipulate the environment. Fair trade is a sensitive subject. We in good heart attempt to pay for our goods (products) at a fare sustainable price. The overlooked situation is these herbal collectors are encouraged to produce more from the earth.”
It has been contested whether or not certain spices and herbs that have been used for medicinal purposes actually have medicinal benefits. Between 2000 and 2008, a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded collaborative study among multiple universities determined that the herb ginkgo didn’t affect Alzheimer’s disease in the elderly with symptoms of memory decline and dementia. Another study funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that saw palmetto, which has been used as a popular alternative medicine to treat ailments of the prostate, didn’t improve prostate health.
“A lot of spices do have wellness properties, but we don’t say that any of our products are going to cure anything,” Emily Dinges, quality assurance regulatory technician at the Spice & Tea Exchange, said. “We’re just starting to get into that segment with our store owners, to kind of help them explain what different spices and herbs do for you.”