NEWS

Your Herbs and Spices May Contain Lead and Other Heavy Metals

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Key Takeaways

  • A study by Consumer Reports found concerning levels of heavy metals in some common dried herbs and spices.
  • There is no safe level of lead to have in the bloodstream and the effects of lead add up over time.
  • Lead exposure has been linked to brain damage and developmental delays in children.

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 McCormick, La Flor, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and Great Value (Walmart).

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.

Heavy Metal Poisoning

There's no "safe" blood lead level, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Even small traces of lead can "negatively affect a child’s intelligence, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement."

After a recent study found that over half of U.S. children have detectable levels of lead in their blood, the CDC lowered its threshold for lead poisoning in children. Parents are encouraged to get their kids screened for blood lead level if they suspect there's a risk of environmental exposure.

"Lead affects multiple organs in the human body," Kelly Krisna Johnson-Arbor, MD, medical director at National Capital Poison Center told Verywell. "It can have really dangerous symptoms for humans. And children are more susceptible to the effects of lead than adults."

Unfortunately, lead was just one of the heavy metals detected in spices. Consumer Reports researchers also found traces of arsenic and cadmium in the samples.

Like lead, these heavy metals may have severe health consequences. Long-term exposure to arsenic is associated with medical conditions such as skin disorders, an increased risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, and several types of cancer. 

Cadmium, when eaten, can irritate the stomach and cause vomiting and diarrhea. It's also known as a cancer-causing agent.Johnson-Arbor added that cadmium exposure has also been linked to "kidney problems and really painful bone diseases."

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.

What This Means For You

If you or someone you love has been exposed to lead or another heavy metal, you can also reach out to Poison Control. You can reach this free, confidential hotline 24/7 by calling 1800-222-1222 or by going to www.poison.org.

Stricter Regulations

Currently, there aren't federal limits on heavy metals in spices. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently tested and recalled spices for salmonella, but it's up to consumer decisions for most dried herbs and spices.

In June, New York was the first and only state to set its own action levels for heavy metals in spices. Since setting the limits, about 100 contaminated products have been recalled in the state.

Instead of putting all of the responsibility on individuals, Consumer Reports is calling on the FDA to put stricter regulations in place.

"We are advocating to the FDA to improve their processes of inspecting imported spices," Rogers said. "We also would love to see the spice companies in the U.S. have their own testing ability to see if the spices they are importing have heavy metals, and if they do, reject the shipment."

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Consumer Reports. Your herbs and spices might contain arsenic, cadmium, and lead. November 9, 2021.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lead in paint. Reviewed September 13, 2021.

  3. Consumer Reports. Heavy metals in baby food: what you need to know. Updated September 29, 2021.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health Effects of Lead Exposure. Updated October 26, 2021.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Arsenic Factsheet. Updated April 7, 2017.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cadmium Factsheet. Updated April 7, 2017.

  7. Dignam T, Kaufmann R, LeStourgeon L, Brown M. Control of lead sources in the United States, 1970-2017: public health progress and current challenges to eliminating lead exposureJournal of Public Health Management and Practice. 2019;25(1):S13-S22. doi:10.1097/phh.0000000000000889