I’ll bet you don’t associate spices and heavy metals. Like me, you may be surprised to learn the many of our go-to spices to add flavoring to our meals contain heavy metals.
Seasoning with spices might add toxins to your food. A new study from Consumer Reports found high levels of lead, arsenic, and cadmium in one-third of the dried herbs and spices tested. Many of them are made by well-known brands like:
• La Flor,
• Trader Joe’s,
• Whole Foods, and
• Great Value (Walmart)
Research on Spices and Heavy Metals
• The investigators tested 15 types of common spices, including black pepper, cumin, ginger powder, oregano, and paprika.
• They found 40 out of 126 tested products to contain enough heavy metals that could pose health threats to children.
• None of the thyme and oregano products passed the test, while 31 products contained such high levels of lead that exceeded the maximum amount anyone should consume in a day.
“Anyone who cooks is going to be using spices,” James E. Rogers, PhD, director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports, told Verywell. “Many of the spices used in the United States are imported. I was concerned that those spices were not as safe as if they were grown in the United States because we tend to have the premier food safety system.”
Home cooks don’t have to go overboard with seasonings to be exposed to heavy metals. Consuming just 3/4 teaspoon a day of some spices was enough to be concerning.
Spices only make up one potential source of heavy metal exposure, Rogers added. Harmful heavy metals like lead and arsenic have been found in water, paint, vintage pottery, and baby food.
“This could be a big issue for the development of children because they could be potentially exposed to many sources of these heavy metals and they add up,” Rogers said.
Which Spices Are Contaminated?
Consumer Reports created a chart with the test results to show the level of concerns for different brands.
There’s no clear pattern of which type of spices or brands are more likely to be contaminated. It also doesn’t seem to matter whether the product is labeled “organic” or not.
For example, all the black pepper samples were reported as “no concern.” But the cumin samples were mixed. Trader Joe’s Organic Ground Cumin was listed as “some concern” while Simply Organic’s Ground Cumin was registered as “no concern.”
Limited by resources and time constraints, the researchers were only able to test 15 types of spices. Future testing would be needed to determine heavy metal levels in the varieties and brands that weren’t originally tested.
Johnson-Arbor reiterated that most of the spices used in the U.S. come from overseas. “There might be lead present in the soil and the lead can incorporate into the spices during the growing process,” she said. “Sometimes the machinery that is used to grind the spices can have lead in the metal. That can break down during that process and contaminate spices.”
She also pointed out that lead can be used to add weight or color to certain spices.
“Brightly colored spices, such as turmeric, chili powder, and paprika, are the ones I’m concerned with more because those are the ones that are more likely to have lead added in as a coloring agent,” Johnson-Arbor said.
The Consumer Reports test did find at least one sample of turmeric, chili powder, and paprika that contained concerning levels of heavy metals.
How to Avoid Lead Exposure from Spices
Since the 1970s, federal regulations on gasoline and paint have reduced lead exposure. But people are still susceptible to exposure if they live in houses that were built before 1978, or from other sources like spices.
Prevention is the best way to avoid consuming heavy metals. But consumers may not know which spices are lead-free since this isn’t listed on food labels. Referring to the Consumer Reports chart while shopping at the grocery store might help.
“Try to shop for the spices that testing has shown tend to have lower amounts of heavy metals,” Rogers said, adding that homegrown spices in lead-free soil are safe for consumption.
“If you travel, don’t bring spices back from abroad,” he said. “They could have heavy metals and other contaminants because the food safety system there might not be comparable to the United States.”
People who believe they’ve been exposed to lead or other heavy metals should speak with a healthcare provider.
“For children, we look out for developmental delays, problems with hearing, abdominal pain, and constipation,” Johnson-Arbor said. “For adults, the symptoms might be very vague, like mild headaches or fatigue or high blood pressure.”
Blood tests are available to determine if an individual has been exposed to lead. She added that even after taking a blood test, it can be tricky to determine the source of the exposure.
“Once you figure out where it is coming from, you need to get rid of it. That’s the most important thing,” she said.
Click here to read more about spices and heavy metals.