Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead in Spices & Herbs

True Health CFM Staff
July 11, 2022

Consumer Report tested 126 products from McCormick, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and other popular brands. Almost a third had heavy metal levels high enough to raise health concerns.

Director of food safety and testing at Consumer Reports, James E. Rogers, PHD, says, "When people think about heavy metals in their diet it’s probably the lead in their drinking water. But our tests show that dried herbs and spices can be a surprising, and worrisome, source." What results were also found is there wasn't a consistent brand or product that always contained heavy metals. Even labels with "organic" weren't exempt from being contaminated. However, many of the products tested still performed very well and had appropriate heavy metal levels. The issue is the ones that tested high are cause for concern when used regularly, even if only in small amounts.

Why should we care about heavy metals in our food?

Human bodies are not able to break down heavy metals or excrete them leading to toxic build up which can cause inflammatory symptoms, which is a burden on our bodies. Think of a clogged drain. The continuous build up of heavy metals just keeps piling until we actively go in and remove the clog. In Functional Medicine that's usually with specific supplements used for their ability to bind to heavy metals after a lab test to determine current levels. "Over time, exposure to those heavy metals can harm health. In children, it can affect brain development, increasing the risk for behavioral problems and lower IQ. In adults, it can contribute to central nervous system problems, reproductive problems, and hypertension, and can damage kidney and immune function."1

Overall, it’s almost impossible to rid herbs and spices of all heavy metals because of the unavoidable presence in the environments where they are grown. The amount of heavy metals absorbed from the soil, and the part of the plant where they can end up, differs from plant to plant. So before you start throwing out your spice cabinet, it's ok that there are some levels (because that's natural), we don't want the levels to be over the acceptable limit.

While the risk of heavy metals in herbs and spices is real, limiting your risk doesn’t mean dooming yourself to a life of bland food or giving up old family favorites. Follow these tips.

Choose products with the lowest levels of heavy metals. CR’s tests found at least one product that fit in our No Concern category for every herb and spice we tested except oregano and thyme.

Focus on herbs and spices that are lower in heavy metals. These were black pepper, coriander, curry powder, garlic powder, saffron, sesame seeds, and white pepper. That doesn’t mean that every brand of these herbs and spices is low in heavy metals, because we didn’t test them all. But it is easy to find low-risk versions of them.

Don’t assume some brands are safer than others. CR’s tests could not determine whether one brand was consistently better or worse than any other. And organic products did not have consistently lower levels than conventionally grown ones. While that might surprise some, CR’s Ronholm says the USDA’s organic standards don’t include heavy metal testing.

Grow and dry your own. That might be a particularly good idea if you use a lot of basil, oregano, and thyme; in our tests all or almost all the brands tested were high in heavy metals. Read more about how to grow and dry your own herbs and spices.

Think twice about bringing back herbs and spices from travel abroad. Heavy metal content can be much higher in those products, according to other research. U.S. companies may buy the highest-quality herbs and spices to import, Ronholm says, which could leave lower-quality versions to be sold in the country of origin.

Consider your total potential exposure to heavy metals. This is especially important if you have kids at home. Our tests are a reminder that you should take steps to limit your potential exposure from heavy metals from all sources.

Below, you can see the spices and herbs tested, the brands tested, and the rating of the levels found.

You can also read the full article HERE.

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