Don’t bug out, but you really should give your paprika a closer look before you toss it into your next recipe. It could be totally fine, but it could also be a cozy home to a colony of insects.
There are all sorts of pantry pests that can invade your kitchen. You may have heard about flour beetles that eat their way out of bags of flour and multiply by the hundreds. (I once returned from Thanksgiving vacation to find this delightful surprise in my kitchen.) You’ll also find insects in spices, and among the most susceptible to insect manifestation are pepper-based spices like paprika, cayenne and chili powder.
Many cooks know the horror of opening a jar of paprika to find it moving. Sometimes the culprits are tiny bugs, while other times it’s little worms (more on that below). Often you won’t even notice them if you’re not looking closely, and then BAM, you’ve unknowingly sprinkled them into your food.
How do these creepy crawlers get into our spices, and what we can do to prevent them from getting there? And why are spices like paprika and cayenne more susceptible than others? We’ve got the answers.
In case you need a visual before we get started, here’s one of the less-gross videos depicting bugs in paprika:
What is it about paprika that insects love so much?
We talked to Jody M. Green, a board-certified entemologist at the Nebraska Extension in Lancaster County, to explain the situation. (Her Twitter handle is @JodyBugsMeUNL, in case you were wondering.)
Green told HuffPost that, although many spices are prone to insect damage, including turmeric, coriander, cumin, fennel and dry ginger, insects especially love spices made of peppers.
″Spices are rich in minerals and vitamins, and paprika and cayenne have high prevalence of insect filth compared to other imported spices,” she told HuffPost.
It doesn’t matter whether your paprika is sweet or smoky: It’s all friendly to pests. Green says insects are “particularly fond of products derived from dried sweet peppers/chiles/red pepper products like red pepper flakes, paprika, chili powder and cayenne.” But why? She says it provides a hospitable environment for them to thrive.
“The pepper family appears to contain the nutritional requirements necessary for multiple generations of stored product beetles to successfully sustain life,” Green explained.
And if we’re thinking in terms of culinary use, paprika is especially prone to insect invasion because it’s a spice we don’t often use in American cooking. It sits unused in our spice racks for long periods of time, allowing insects to do their thing, unbothered.
What exactly are these bugs, anyway?
The most common pests found in spices, particularly paprika and cayenne, are the cigarette beetle and the drugstore beetle.
Green says both beetles are in the same family, are reddish-brown and “about the size of a sesame seed.” They’re active fliers, so it’s not uncommon to hear them hitting surfaces in your kitchen if they escape the spice jar and start flying. Green says they live in dried tobacco and pharmaceuticals (as their name implies), but also pet food, cereal, spices and dried fruit.
Why do they sometimes look like worms?
Sometimes your spices may look like they’re infested with tiny worms. But they’re actually the same critters as the bugs, just in baby form. If you think about the life cycle of an insect, it makes perfect sense.
“These particular pests are beetles, so they undergo complete metamorphosis (like a butterfly),” Green explained. “So they have an egg, larva, pupa and adult stage. The worms that have been reportedly in the spice are the larval form.”
“They are cream-colored, have three pairs of short legs, an orange head capsule, dense hairs and have chewing mouthparts,” Green continued to elaborate, despite our nausea. “They use fragments of their food source to create a pupal cell where they pupate and then emerge as adult beetle.”
How do the bugs get into spices in the first place?
Are these tiny beetles ever-present in the spices? Or did they manage to crawl their way inside? It’s most likely the latter.
Green explains that most of the spices consumed in the U.S. have been imported, and “it is not rare for imported product to be contaminated with ‘filth’ (i.e. insects parts), so there is a good chance a product could have been infested after harvest before coming [to the U.S.].”
However, she says the more likely source of contamination is during the treatment process. Between the spices’ journey from processing to consumption, insects have a ton of chances to sneak their way into the product.
“Adult beetles are active fliers and can get into storage facilities via gaps, open doors, unscreened windows, infested vehicles, bulk bins and containers,” Green said. “With adequate food source and temperature-controlled environment, insects can thrive, breed and feed. In processing facilities, storage and even in the grocery store, infestations can be transferred on equipment and being in close proximity to other infested products. Cigarette beetles and drugstore beetles have been known to penetrate through packaging, tin foil, plastic and sheet metal.”
And then once the consumer brings home the product, the infestation doesn’t end. “People can be bringing them home in any of the life stages and the life cycle continues!” Green said, perhaps a little too excitedly.
Is there anything home cooks can do to stop this madness?
Yes! Though your spices may always contain fragments of insects that are beyond your control, you can at least end their lifecycle to ensure they don’t continue breeding. Here’s what Green suggests:
Inspect the product at the store. Look for damaged packaging. If the container is transparent, look for larvae and beetles inside.
Stick your spices in the freezer for four days (make sure your freezer is set at 0 degrees Fahrenheit) before putting them in your spice rack or pantry.
If you’ve bought your spice in bulk, keep what you’re saving for future use in the freezer. Before freezing, divide it into glass containers that are airtight.
Practice stock rotation using the FIFO (first in, first out) rule. Use your oldest products first, and keep them at the front of your pantry so you’ll be more likely to grab them first. Then move on to newer products, which you keep at the back of the pantry and rotate forward when you’re ready to use them.
Clean up any spills in your kitchen as soon as they happen.
Commercial pheromone traps are available, but they’re species specific and may not be good at decreasing the population, as they attract a single sex and the pests may have already mated.
Now go forth and inspect your spices with great trepidation. We know you want to.