A fistful of parsley dries out in the refrigerator after you used it for a dish or two. And the 15 bottles of spices on your spice rack have long lost fragrance before you noticed.
It’s a common home-cook frustration. A new recipe calls for a tablespoon of fresh basil and a pinch of smoked paprika, but when you go to the grocery store, even the smallest quantities of those ingredients provide far more than you need. Why?
The answer is simple: It’s good business.
Big bunches make big money
As far as fresh herbs go, sellers make more money off of large bunches, according to John Stanton, professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
Demand for fresh herbs — like basil, cilantro, mint, rosemary, thyme, and parsley — has increased dramatically over the past few decades, thanks to gourmet restaurants, and the rise of celebrity chefs and cooking shows. Growing fresh herbs has become a high-profit niche market, experts say, but it’s costly to compete.
Because herbs are at their best when freshly picked, it is important for sellers to establish a quick supply chain. To be successful, they must develop an efficient system to move the herbs from growers to customers, Stanton said. Herbs are also more delicate than vegetables. To prevent damage to the leafy herbs and keep their attractiveness, growers, distributors, and sellers also have to handle them gently and package them properly for long shelf life.
“You cannot have the product sitting around some place too long,” Stanton said. “The withered parsley is almost as powerful as the unwithered, but it just doesn’t look good.”
The complex, labor-heavy logistics that get herbs from growers to grocers in good condition cost a lot of money. Selling herbs in large bunches — more than what a home cook may need — helps make up for these costs.
While no one wants to reveal profit margins for the products they sell, Stanton said growers profit more from fresh herbs than from competitive produce, such as tomatoes and carrots.
The struggle of minimizing waste
Jeanine Davis, associate professor at the department of horticultural science at NC State University, said small packets of herbs are good alternatives to big bunches of cilantro, parsley, or mint.
While home cooks may avoid food waste by electing the fresh herbs that come in plastic containers, they aren’t necessarily saving money. For instance, a full bunch of cilantro costs $1.99 at Wegmans, a regional supermarket chain in the Northeast, but 0.25 ounces of the same product packaged in a plastic is priced at $1.25. The package is actually more expensive if you calculate the cost per unit. And it may still come with more than you need, as well.
If you’re more concerned about minimizing food waste, subscribing to meal kits might be the way to go. Herbs, spices and seasonings come in the exact amount you need for a dish from meal subscription services like Blue Apron or Sun Basket.
How to make fresh herbs last longer
Compared with buying smaller packages of herbs or subscribing to a meal kit, buying those big, fresh bunches of herbs is the most affordable choice. Buying more than you need doesn’t mean you’ll inevitably waste food either. Karen Kennedy, education coordinator at the Herb Society of America, shared these tips with MagnifyMoney for getting the most value out of your herb purchases:
Spices last longer but can still be problematic
Most commonly, dried spices are sold in bottles at grocery stores. Each bottle contains a few ounces of herbs, generally about 1 to 2 ounces. Prices vary dramatically by spice.
Kai Stark, purchasing manager at Frontier Co-op, an Iowa-based natural product wholesaler that owns the organic spice brand Simply Organic, told MagnifyMoney that spices are costly because some are extremely difficult to harvest, such as saffron and vanilla, making them incredibly labor-intensive. Others are prone to crop failures, making them risky items for farmers to grow, Stark explained.
Still, many may think two ounces of nutmeg for $5 is costly, especially when the recipe calls for only a tiny bit. Stanton, however, argues that people believe that dried herbs and spices are expensive because they only think of the cost per bottle. He referred to a roasted chicken meal as an example:
“Let’s say a jar of tarragon costs about $3, and a nice chicken may cost $7,” he said. “So you put the chicken in a pan. You took a pinch of tarragon and then you put it in an oven. The cost of the meal is [actually] the full $7 dollars of the chicken and about 3 cents of tarragon.”
“It’s better to think of it as cost per use and then it’s not that expensive,” he added.
How to keep your spice costs down
The trick to getting the most value out of a spice is using the whole bottle. Even though it might seem cheaper to buy dried herbs and spices in larger quantities, Kennedy suggests consumers stock them in small amounts to avoid waste.
In the case of nutmeg, you might want to buy a 0.53-ounce bottle that costs $2.
“If you can’t use it all before the flavor diminishes, you haven’t really saved anything,” Kennedy said.
Stark said the bulk aisle would be the place where consumers should look to save money on spices.
“You can purchase the exact amount of spice you want, whether it’s a pinch or a pound,” he said.
To be sure, not every grocery store has bulk spice aisles, and there may not be a specialty spice shop in your town. If that’s not an option at your local grocer, and you feel like you’re wasting money on spices you don’t use up while they’re most potent, consider these tips:
What you can do to make spices last longer
To keep their shelf life as long as possible, Kennedy said it’s best to store the dried herbs and spices in airtight glass jars and and place the bottles in a dry, dark, and cool location. Use your nose as a judge: You may want to toss your spice jar when a strong aroma or flavor doesn’t come off right away when you open it.
“When the fragrance begins to fade, so has the flavor,” she said. Most spices are good for one year when stored properly.
Spices sitting on the shelf for a year may not smell as good as when they were freshly bought, but Stanton said that doesn’t mean they are not safe to eat.
The expiration dates on food are mostly irrelevant, said Stanton, adding that they were labeled by companies hoping that consumers would regularly toss old products and buy new ones. Indeed, expiration dates are not required by law. Industry groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute are trying to get food manufacturers and retailers to stop labeling expiration/sell by dates to help consumers reduce food waste.
“If you have an old bottle of dried herbs, you might have to put a little more on,” Stanton said. “So instead of costing 3 cents to make the tarragon chicken, it actually costs 6 cents.”