Toxic Contaminants Found in 32% of Spices Tested

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Spices are phenomenal for your health -- except when they're contaminated with heavy metals and exposed to radiation. Find out what to watch out for when choosing spices for your meals

Adding herbs and spices to your meals is a simple way to boost flavor and health benefits. Sprinkling a total of about 1 teaspoon per day of cinnamon, ginger, cumin, turmeric, rosemary, oregano, basil or thyme[i] on your food is even enough to improve the bacterial diversity in your gut after just four weeks.[ii]

But along with their beneficial polyphenolic compounds could be a hidden threat -- toxic heavy metals like lead, arsenic and cadmium. In a study of 126 spices from popular brands like McCormick, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, nearly one-third contained heavy metals at levels that could harm your health.[iii]

About One-Third of Spices Contaminated With Heavy Metals

Consumer Reports analyzed 126 dried herbs and spices from brands including Great Value (Walmart), La Flor, Spice Islands, Penzeys and more. Forty of the products -- or nearly 32% -- contained arsenic, lead and cadmium at a combined level high enough to harm children's health if consumed regularly.

Many of these products contained heavy metals at high enough levels to pose a threat to adults, too. The spices tested included:[iv]

Basil

Black pepper

Chili

Coriander

Cumin

Curry powder

Garlic powder

Ginger

Oregano

Paprika

Saffron

Sesame seed

Thyme

Turmeric

White pepper

Thyme and oregano were particularly concerning, with high levels of heavy metals found in every sample tested. Further, according to Consumer Reports, "In 31 products, levels of lead were so high that they exceeded the maximum amount anyone should have in a day."[v]

Concerning levels of heavy metals were detected in brand name products, organic products and those packed in the U.S., highlighting the fact that even presumably high-quality brands and organics may be unsafe.

Spices Responsible for 19% of Children With Lead Poisoning

Heavy metal contamination appears widespread in spices. A study conducted by the Douglas County Health Department in Nebraska revealed that contaminated spices are the No. 2 cause of lead poisoning in the area's children, behind only lead paint.[vi]

Lead was found in every spice tested, including conventional and organic brands of turmeric, basil, ginger, thyme, curry powder, turmeric and ginger root. Among the children who tested high for lead in Douglas County in 2021, 19% of cases were linked to spices. Brian Ronholm, director of food policy for Consumer Reports, told Food Safety News:[vii]

"It really underscores the seriousness of the problem and the need for the FDA to act in setting strict explicit limits. The need for tighter regulations is urgent, especially when you consider that spices are consumed almost daily and the potential long-term effects heavy metal exposure has on children."

Your Spices Are Irradiated, Too

Spices are among a wide variety of foods in the U.S. that are exposed to ionizing radiation under the guise of killing microorganisms and insects. While the FDA claims this makes your food safer,[viii] there's a reason why microbes and insects die upon exposure to gamma rays emitted from radioactive Cobalt 60 -- a form of nuclear waste.

Irradiation is known to cause a loss of nutrients and an increase in "radiolytic" products.[ix] In one study of nine herbs and spices exposed to a level of irradiation common in commercial practice, an increase in quinone radical content was found.

"In particular, the quinone radical content more than doubled in parsley, rosemary, oregano, sage, black pepper, and bird pepper, increased >5 times in cinnamon and almost 7 times in nutmeg, but remained substantially unchanged in basil," the study, published in Food Chemistry, noted.[x]

What's more, the antioxidant content of the spices decreased. Irradiation led to "significant losses" of vitamin C in black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, oregano and sage, and a "significant decrease" of carotenoids in cinnamon, oregano, parsley, rosemary, bird pepper and sage.[xi]

The simplest way to ensure the spices you're consuming are not irradiated is to choose organic varieties, as organic foods cannot be irradiated. Unfortunately, this won't guarantee that they're free of heavy metals.

Tips for Choosing Safe Spices

Several lawsuits have been filed against Amazon, Walmart and McCormick & Co., alleging that the companies failed to warn consumers that their spices contain toxic heavy metals.[xii] One lawsuit against McCormick states the company "stood idly by with a reckless disregard for its consumers' health and well-being," while putting consumers at risk of lower IQ, behavioral problems, cancer and reproductive issues from heavy metal exposure.[xiii]

The cases may prompt some manufacturers to conduct more careful testing and quality control, but in the meantime choose spices from companies that openly test their products for heavy metals. Consumer Reports also listed several herbs and spices that tend to be lower in heavy metals, which include:[xiv]

Black pepper

Coriander

Curry powder

Garlic powder

Saffron

Sesame seeds

White pepper

 

You'll also want to choose organic spices to avoid irradiation. One of the best ways to get pure, non-irradiated spices, however, is to grow and dry your own. Basil, oregano and thyme were spices that tested particularly high in heavy metals -- and they're also among the easiest to grow at home.

Whatever you do, don't avoid indulging in these superfoods, as you'll miss out on countless health benefits. Culinary herbs and spices may be useful for at least 864 diseases, so choose a high-quality source -- and try your hand at growing your own -- and enjoy all the flavor and nutrition that these natural compounds offer


References

[i] PennState December 2, 2022 https://www.psu.edu/news/research/story/peanuts-and-herbs-and-spices-may-positively-impact-gut-microbiome/

[ii] The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 152, Issue 11, November 2022, Pages 2461-2470 https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/nxac201

[iii] Consumer Reports November 9, 2021 https://www.consumerreports.org/health/food-safety/your-herbs-and-spices-might-contain-arsenic-cadmium-and-lead-a6246621494/

[iv] Consumer Reports, Heavy Metals in Salmonella in Herbs and Spices https://article.images.consumerreports.org/prod/content/dam/surveys/Consumer_Reports_Test_Methodology_for_Herbs_Spices_November_2021

[v] Consumer Reports November 9, 2021 https://www.consumerreports.org/health/food-safety/your-herbs-and-spices-might-contain-arsenic-cadmium-and-lead-a6246621494/

[vi] Food Safety News January 10, 2023 https://www.foodsafetynews.com/2023/01/heartland-study-finds-spices-second-only-to-paint-for-the-lead-poisoning-of-children/

[vii] Food Safety News January 10, 2023 https://www.foodsafetynews.com/2023/01/heartland-study-finds-spices-second-only-to-paint-for-the-lead-poisoning-of-children/

[viii] U.S. FDA, Food Irradiation: What You Need to Know https://www.fda.gov/food/buy-store-serve-safe-food/food-irradiation-what-you-need-know

[ix] J Agric Food Chem. 2003 Feb 12;51(4):927-34. doi: 10.1021/jf020739n. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12568551/

[x] J Agric Food Chem. 2003 Feb 12;51(4):927-34. doi: 10.1021/jf020739n. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12568551/

[xi] J Agric Food Chem. 2003 Feb 12;51(4):927-34. doi: 10.1021/jf020739n. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12568551/

[xii] The Epoch Times March 25, 2023 https://www.theepochtimes.com/health/beware-of-toxic-spices-heavy-metals-found-in-major-brand-names_5133220.html

[xiii] ClassAction.org January 18, 2022 https://www.classaction.org/news/mccormick-herbs-spices-contain-heightened-levels-of-toxic-heavy-metals-class-action-alleges

[xiv] Consumer Reports November 9, 2021 https://www.consumerreports.org/health/food-safety/your-herbs-and-spices-might-contain-arsenic-cadmium-and-lead-a6246621494/

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