Heavy metals, chemicals found in many spices, Consumer Reports study finds

BOSTON — Spices are found in many kitchens and are called for in lots of recipes, but a study found certain ones -- may contain chemicals and heavy metals.

Consumer Reports tested a variety of spices and herbs. In 31 products, the levels of lead were so high they exceeded the maximum amount anyone should have in one day. They tested everything from basil to turmeric across brands like Whole Foods and Walmart.

The results were concerning to Judy Racz, owner of organic restaurant Mio.

“It is the most important thing,” she said while talking about feeding her own family. “It’s what they’re eating.”

That’s why she says she prefers using mostly fresh herbs in her restaurant and choosing hand-selected dried spices.

“Heavy metals and arsenic for a child’s growing brain is like, the worst thing that you can do,” Racz said.

And yet that’s what Consumer Reports found in many common items.

The study looked at 15 types of herbs and spices across several popular brands. Of the 126 individual items tested, 40 had high enough levels of arsenic, cadmium, and lead combined, on average, to pose health concerns to children in typical serving sizes.

Heavy metals are hard for the body to break down and get rid of, so they build up over time. In children, the study says, it can affect brain development, increase behavioral problems, and lower IQ. In adults, it can contribute to central nervous system problems, reproductive problems, hypertension, and can damage the kidney or immune function.

A single herb or spice used once is unlikely to cause harm, the study said. But over time, and with repeated exposure, come growing concerns.

Black pepper, chili powder, coriander, curry powder, garlic powder, saffron, sesame seed, and white pepper all fared well across all tested brands. But researchers found, when it comes to cumin powder, paprika, and turmeric, shoppers should be more selective with which brand they buy.

According to the Consumer Reports testing, ginger and especially oregano and thyme had the biggest concerns. Consumer Reports tests found no good options across the brands, saying they all have concerning levels of heavy metals in those products.

In response, the American Spice Trade Association told Consumer Reports it’s almost impossible to rid spices and herbs of all heavy metals because of the “unavoidable presence in the environments where they are grown.” It does say it offers guidance to companies on how to limit contaminants.

Farmers like Rebecca Isola say oregano and thyme are two of the easier herbs to grow at home, pointing out a little herb garden in a pot can go a long way.

“The fewer chemicals we consume the better,” Isola said.

Consumer Reports is asking the FDA for stricter limits on heavy metals in food. Their petition can be found here: FDA: Protect Americans from heavy metal exposure (consumerreports.org)