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Dried spices can contain lead, arsenic and cadmium, Consumer Reports finds

Two very popular spices were particularly worrisome when it came to heavy metal content.
Consumer Reports tested 126 dried herbs and spices from 38 brands for arsenic, cadmium and lead.
Consumer Reports tested 126 dried herbs and spices from 38 brands for arsenic, cadmium and lead.Zoonar RF / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Dried herbs and spices added to food can be a “surprising and worrisome” source of heavy metals for kids and adults, a Consumer Reports investigation published on Tuesday found.

When the organization tested 15 types of spices, almost one-third of the products from national and private-label brands — 40 of 126 — had high enough levels of arsenic, lead and cadmium combined, on average, “to pose a health concern for children when regularly consumed in typical serving sizes,” the report found. Adults could be affected, too.

Thyme and oregano were particularly worrisome, with all the products tested containing heavy metal levels that CR experts called concerning.

Consumer Reports also warned levels of lead were so high in 31 products that they exceeded the maximum amount anyone should have in a day.

Lisa Gill, CR’s health and medicine investigative reporter, said she was “astounded” there was no way to predict which products would be problematic: it didn’t matter what the brand or country of origin was, or whether the spices were organic or not.

“We thought that there would be certain signals that would help consumers make easy decisions in the spice aisle. But there are not,” Gill told TODAY.

“All spices face the same trouble, and that is they can leach heavy metals out of water and soil.”

Toxic elements such as arsenic are present in the environment. They can also enter the food supply through industrial, manufacturing and agricultural processes.

You may wonder if spices are that big of a deal since people add just a pinch and don’t eat them by the spoonful. But the concern is the cumulative potential risk of heavy metals — ingesting them from different sources that add up to unhealthy amounts — since heavy metals can also show up in water and other products, she noted.

Exposure to metals comes from many different foods, which means that “combining all of the foods we eat, even low levels of harmful metals from individual food sources, can sometimes add up to a level of concern,” noted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which sets standards for metals in foods.

Heavy metals can impair children’s brain development and exposure has been liked with heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes and cancer, according to the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund.

Test results

After testing 126 dried herbs and spices from 38 brands for arsenic, cadmium and lead, Consumer Reports labeled the products as either of “no concern,” “some concern,” “moderate concern” or “high concern.”

Three products reached the “high concern” threshold: La Flor ground oregano, La Flor ground turmeric and Happy Belly (Amazon) ground thyme.

All of the oregano and thyme tested — no matter the brand — was deemed to be of at least “some concern” by CR.

Other spices, including basil, chili powder, cumin, ginger, paprika and turmeric, fell into the “some concern” or “moderate concern” category depending on the brand, but also had at least one “no concern” option.

Popular brands, including McCormick, Spice Islands, Great Value (Walmart), Kirkland Signature (Costco), Trader Joe’s and 365 Whole Foods Market, all had products that fell either into the “some concern” or “moderate concern” category.

The spices that had “no concern” scores across the board from any brands tested included black pepper, coriander, curry powder, garlic powder, saffron, sesame seed and white pepper.

Consumer Reports did not test baking spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg.

What the industry says

La Flor and Happy Belly did not reply to a TODAY request for comment. TODAY also didn’t hear back from the American Spice Trade Association, but the group told Consumer Reports its risk analysis found spices made up less than 0.1% of dietary lead exposure in children 1 to 6 years old. The ASTA believed the risk was also low for adults “because spices are a very small component of the diet."

Of the companies that replied to CR’s questions — Al Wadi Al Akhdar, Costco, Bolner’s Fiesta, Gebhardt, Litehouse, McCormick, Roland Foods, Spice Islands, Target and Whole Foods — some said “they require their suppliers to have a program for controlling or testing for heavy metals,” the organization noted.

Three companies — Al Wadi Al Akhdar, Bolner’s Fiesta and McCormick — told CR they tested products in their manufacturing plants for heavy metals.

Costco, Litehouse and McCormick “said their goal is to have heavy metals as close to 0 as possible, but no company provided the thresholds they consider acceptable,” CR noted.

Regulation lacking

The government has done a very good job with monitoring for bacteria in spices, but there's a lack of federal oversight when it comes to the presence of heavy metals, Gill said.

“They don’t have rules in place for spices,” she noted, adding “oh, goodness, no” when asked if the FDA was doing enough to regulate in this area.

New York is the only state that regulates heavy metals in spices, Gill said.

Earlier this year, the FDA said it takes exposure to toxic elements in the food supply extremely seriously and aims to reduce exposure "to the greatest extent feasible."  The agency has the authority to take enforcement action on a case-by-case basis when foods are found through routine or targeted testing to have levels of a toxic element that may cause the food to be unsafe, an FDA spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement. Efforts are ongoing "to ensure that food manufactures are meeting their legal responsibility to produce, pack and hold safe foods," it read.

Tips for consumers:

Be an educated shopper: Consider buying spices that have green checkmarks next to them in the Consumer Reports investigation.

Be extra careful choosing spices you use particularly often and a lot: That might include turmeric, which many people use for health reasons.

Grow your own oregano or thyme: “I appreciate that not everybody has the time or they don’t want to do that, but it’s actually really easy,” Gill said. “So if you have any interest in even little window gardens and drying your own spices, it’s actually extremely rewarding to do that.”

Don’t bring back spices from overseas: Spices shipped to the U.S. are typically of the highest quality countries offer and can be subject to additional checks from the companies that import them, Gill noted. “You have a better chance of getting a product that is not contaminated with a heavy metal,” she said.