Open a drawer or cabinet in any American kitchen and you're likely to find a few jars of dried herbs and spices.
Jessica Clark, a mother of two from Lincoln, Nebraska, says she uses them so often that she buys them in bulk and mixes them herself. Erica Burger of Carmel, Indiana, says she's become "addicted" to the 21-spice blend — so much so that she now uses it in all kinds of dishes. “It's so delicious, meuse less saltin general,” he says. And Joey Davis, who grew up in San Diego "where Mexican food is on every corner" and whose Jamaican wife "puts habanero on everything, including cucumber salad," says that at home, "you can't imagine a dish without spices and herbs."
For many of us, herbs and spices play a big role in cooking and family life. The recipe may only call for a pinch or three of cumin, cayenne and garlic powder, but what would your grandmother's arroz con pollo be without them? How about your Simon & Garfunkel secret fish rub - you know, the one with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme?
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Yes, these spices can really spice up our lives, fill our kitchen with enticing aromas and create memories of people and places associated with special meals. But beyond flavor and memories, herbs and spices can add something less spicy to your diet: potentially dangerous heavy metals.
That's what Consumer Reports' test shows15 types of dried herbs and spicesused in different kitchens. We reviewed 126 individual national and private label products, including Great Value (Walmart), La Flor, McCormick, Penzeys, Spice Islands, and Trader Joe's. Read more aboutlike CR tried herbs and spices(PDF).
About a third of the products tested, 40 in all, had on average high enough levels of total arsenic, lead and cadmium to cause health problems in children eaten regularly in standard portions. Most also expressed concern for adults.
For two herbs, thyme and oregano, all the products we tested had levels that CR experts say are concerning.
According to CR experts, the level of lead in 31 products was so high that it exceeded the maximum amount that a person should consume in a day.
When people think of heavy metals in their diet, it's probably lead in their drinking water. However, our tests show that dried herbs and spices can be a surprising and disturbing source.
JAMES E. ROGERS, dr
Director of Food Safety and Testing at Consumer Reports
Also worrying: there was no single predictor of which products contained higher levels of heavy metals – for example, the brand didn't matter, nor did "organically'or 'packaged in USA'.
Good news? Many products performed well in tests. In seven of the 15 types of herbs and spices tested, the heavy metal levels in all brands were below our threshold values, giving rise to concern. In most others, we found at least one brand that fits into the No Worries category. And none of the herbs and spices tested were contaminated with the salmonella bacteria they can causeFood poisoning.
A single serving of any herb or spice tested by CR is unlikely to cause harm, says Dr. James E. Rogers, CR's Director of Food Safety and Testing. And there are wayslimit your riskchoose and use spices carefully. However, some products contain enough heavy metals, even in small amounts used in the kitchen, to cause concern with regular use.
“When people think about heavy metals in their diet, if they think about it at all, it's probably about thatlead in drinking wateror arsenic in their children's fruit juice or breakfast cereal," says Rogers. "But our tests show that dried herbs and spices can be a surprising and disturbing source for children and adults alike."
Dark chocolate may contain lead and cadmium
Consumer reports founddangerous heavy metals in chocolatefrom Hershey's, Theo, Trader Joe's and other popular brands.
Heavy metal hazard
Frequent exposure to even small amounts of lead, arsenic, cadmium and other heavy metals is dangerous, partly because the human body has difficulty breaking them down or removing them. Over time, exposure to these heavy metals can damage your health. In children, it can affect brain development, increasing the risk of behavioral problems and lower IQ. In adults, it can cause problems with the central nervous system, reproductive problems andhypertensionand can damage your kidneys and immune system.
"Since the risks are serious," Rogers says, "it's in your best interest to limit your heavy metal intake as much as possible."
Heavy metals can show up in food if the water or soil in which the food is grown contains them naturally or is contaminated by pesticides or industrial applications, said Tunde Akinleye, a CR chemist who oversaw the tests. Heavy metals can also leach into foods, including herbs and spices, during production - for example from processing equipment or packaging.
Laura Shumow, executive director of the American Spice Trade Association, says it is nearly impossible to get rid of all heavy metals in herbs and spices because of their "inevitable presence in the environment where they are grown." It also states that the amount of heavy metals absorbed from the soil and the part of the plant they can reach varies from plant to plant. The trade group offers guidance to companies on ways to reduce pollution that they can implement at their suppliers.
Shumow says condiments account for less than 0.1 percent of dietary lead exposure in children ages 1 to 6, according to a recent ASTA risk analysis. ASTA believes that even for adults the risk is low, "mainly because spices are such a small part of the diet."
However, the CR data underscores a broader problem. "People use herbs and spices in their kitchen many times a day," says Akinleye. For some spices, just one serving - ¾ teaspoon or more - a day leaves little room for exposure to heavy metals from other sources. For example, previous CR tests showed that some brandsfruit juice,baby food, iRiscontain alarming amounts of heavy metals.
Small amounts of some products can be a problem if they are combined with others in a recipe. For example, a dish that contains only ¼ teaspoon of Great Value chili powder (Walmart), Trader Joe's organic cumin, and La Flor oregano per portion contain enough arsenic and cadmium and may cause concern.
Other research also suggests that herbs and spices may contribute to heavy metal exposure. E.g,2018 surveyThe Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found high levels of lead in 22 percent of food samples — mostly spices and herbal remedies — taken from the homes of lead-poisoned children in North Carolina.
And a2010 surveylinked a case of lead poisoning in a 12-month-old Massachusetts boy in part to the turmeric used by the family. Five similar cases were later discovered in Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut and New York. And over a dozenturmeric productswe remind you from 2011.
However, CR tests show that companies that produce herbs and spices can reduce the content of heavy metals in their products. "About two-thirds of the spices we tested did not contain adequate levels of heavy metals," says Akinleye. "So we know that spices don't have to contain alarming amounts of lead, arsenic or any other heavy metal."
Herbs and spices grown abroad
The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for the safety of herbs and spices. The agency has not set limits for heavy metals in food except in a few cases, such as arsenic in baby rice cereal and lead in candy. However, spice companies are required to conduct periodic food safety reviews, which include testing for chemical hazards such as heavy metals, says Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at CR.
"Heavy metal testing is part of a broader risk assessment process that FDA may conduct if it determines that sample collection and analysis is warranted for a particular shipment," an agency spokesman said.
Importantly, the FDA can also test herbs and spices shipped to the US and block products if it deems them a health risk. That's important because most of the spices sold in the U.S. are grown overseas — in countries like China, India and Vietnam — and some studies show that oversight of food production is sometimes less strict there.
But while you may want to know where the herbs and spices you use are grown, it's not easy to determine. CR's food safety experts found lots labeled "U.S. Packed" but provided no other information. For other products, multiple countries were listed, indicating that the final product was a mixture from more than one source.
Currently, around twenty spice manufacturers from 11 countries are subject to import notices for lead contamination, signaling to authorities that they may freeze these products. However, this is a fraction of the herbs and spices shipped to the United States. Also, the FDA's limited spice tests focused on harmful bacteria like salmonella rather than heavy metals, says Ronholm.
Protect Americans from heavy metals
Evaluationin our report asking the FDA for stricter limitsi mad.
The lack of regulation leaves much of the monitoring of heavy metal levels to companies. CR contacted all the products in our test to see how they reduced heavy metals.
Of the companies that responded to our inquiries - 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 an audit - or test program for heavy metals. However, only three companies - Al Wadi Al Akhdar, Bolner's Fiesta and McCormick - have explicitly stated that they test products at their production facilities for heavy metal content.
Costco, Litehouse and McCormick have said they aim for heavy metal content as close to zero as possible, but none of the companies have specified what limits they consider acceptable.
For years, California has required products that exceed limits for substances known to cause cancer or reproductive harm, including heavy metals, to carry a warning label. But currently, New York is the only state that has itlimits have been set for heavy metalsin herbs and spices.
She raised them after more than 100 herbs and spices were recalled from the market due to heavy metal contamination since 2016, said Jola Szubielski, a spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. Once enforcement begins, the state can force recalls of products with elevated levels of heavy metals.
While the risks of heavy metals in herbs and spices are real, reducing your risk doesn't mean condemning yourself to a life of bland food or giving up old family favorites. Follow these tips.
Choose products with the lowest content of heavy metals.CR testing has shown that at least one product fits into our "No worries" category for every herb and spice tested, with the exception of oregano and thyme.
Focus on herbs and spices with lower heavy metal content.It was black pepper, coriander, curry powder, garlic powder, saffron, sesame seeds and white pepper. That's not to say that all brands of these herbs and spices are low in heavy metals, because we haven't tested them all. But low-risk versions are easy to find.
Don't assume that some brands are safer than others.CR tests did not determine whether a given brand was consistently better or worse than others. Organic produce did not consistently have lower levels than conventionally grown produce. While this may come as a surprise to some, CR's Ronholm says the USDA standards for organic produce do not include testing for heavy metals.
Roll out and dry yours.It can be a particularly good idea if you use a lot of basil, oregano and thyme. in our tests, all or almost all of the brands we tested had a high content of heavy metals. Read more abouthow to grow and dry your own herbs and spices;.
Think twice before bringing herbs and spices from your travels abroad.Other studies show that the heavy metal content of these products can be much higher. Ronholm says American companies can import higher-quality herbs and spices, which can result in lower-quality versions being sold in the country of origin.
Consider the total potential exposure to heavy metals.This is especially important if there are children in the house. Our tests remind us that steps must be taken to limit potential exposure to heavy metals from all sources.
This means not only choosing low-risk spices when possible, but alsotest the water for lead and arsenic, and if levels are high, install a water filter.
And if you have little ones at home, check out CR's selection tipsifIcereal for childrenthat have a low content of heavy metals.
Research results of herbs and spices CR
The CONSUMER REPORTS project tested 126 herbs and spices from 38 brands for arsenic, cadmium and lead. (We did not try spices commonly used in baking, such as cinnamon and nutmeg.) We tried two or three samples from different lots of each product. Our findings are a random market survey and cannot be used to draw definitive conclusions about brands. The products are sorted alphabetically by type. Within each group, products are listed by level of concern. Regular consumption of ¾ teaspoon or more per day of a product in one of the relevant categories may compromise children's health over time due to the combined levels of the three heavy metals. Unless otherwise stated, they may also pose a risk to adults. The more red boxes next to a product, the greater the concern.
- Just organicRoyal 0
- 365 Whole food markedRoyal
- Great valueRoyal License (Walmart).
- McCormickCooking ground basil (ground basil)
- SausagePainted bigelé
- LitehouseFreeze-dried basil
- Mortona and BassettaRoyal*
- Spice islandsSweet basil
- TunaGround black pepper 0
- BeautifulGround black pepper (ground black pepper) 0
- badiaGround black pepper (ground black pepper) 0
- CasablankaGround black pepper (black pepper) 0
- Joe's TraderOrganic ground black pepper 0
- Kirkland signature(Costco) Finely ground black pepper 0
- Just organicBlack pepper 0
- Penzey's spicesTellicherry Black pepper with fine grinding in a shaker 0
- Great value(Walmart) Ground black pepper 0
- McCormickPure, ground black pepper 0
- Mortona and BassettaChili pulver 0
- Spice islandsChili pulver 0
- Just organicChili pulver 0
- badiaChili squid powder 0
- SwadChili pulver 0
- Okay and collect(Measure) Chili powder 0
- GebhardtaChili pulver 0
- BeautifulGround California Chili (Chile California Molido) 0
- McCormickDark chili powder 0
- Great value(Walmart) Chili Pulver*
- Just organicCilantro 0
- Happy belly(Amazon) Ground coriander 0
- badiaGround coriander 0
- Great value(Walmart) Organic ground cilantro 0
- Spice islandsGround coriander 0
- Mortona and BassettaGround coriander 0
- When LaxmiCoriander powder 0
- Penzey's spicesCilantro 0
- Spice islandsGround cumin seeds 0
- Just organicGround cumin 0
- Beautifulcumin (cumin) 0
- Mortona and BassettaGround cumin 0
- McCormickGround cumin 0
- 365 Whole food markedGround cumin 0
- bolner partyMinced Comino*
- badiaground cumin (ground cumin)*
- Great value(Walmart) ground cumin*
- Joe's TraderOrganic ground cumin
- Just organiccurry powder 0
- Great value(Walmart) Organic curry powder 0
- Mortona and BassettaCurry 0
- Spice islandscurry powder 0
- Jamaica optionJamaican curry powder 0
- McCormickcurry powder 0
- Happy belly(Amazon) Curry powder 0
- Caribbean rhythmsMild curry powder 0
- badiaJamaican curry powder 0
- 365 Whole food markedOrganic garlic powder 0
- by LawryHomemade garlic powder (garlic powder) 0
- McCormickGarlic powder 0
- Just organicGarlic powder 0
- bolner partyGarlic powder 0
- Kirkland signature(Costco) Granulated California Garlic 0
- Great value(Walmart) Garlic cloves 0
- FlowerGarlic powder (garlic powder) 0
- badiaGarlic powder (garlic powder) 0
- Supreme SpiceGarlic powder 0
- Just organicrevive 0
- 365 Whole food markedGround ginger
- Great value(Walmart) Organic Ground Ginger
- FlowerGround ginger (Jenjibre)
- TunaGround ginger
- badiaGround ginger
- Spice islandsGround ginger
- Mortona and BassettaGround ginger
- McCormickGround ginger
- Just organicOregano
- McCormickGround oregano
- Penzey's spicesTurkish oregano
- Spice islandsOregano
- badiaMielone Oregano (ground)
- SandafaOregano blade
- FlowerGround oregano
- Mortona and BassettaPepper 0
- Just organicPepper 0
- Spice islandsPepper 0
- 365 Whole food markedPepper 0
- Great value(Walmart) Organic Peppers*
- badiaPepper (Pepper)*
- Duma SzegedHungarian sweet paprika
- Imports of Pacific PlazaA whole strand of Spanish saffron 0
- Krokos KozanisOrganic Greek red saffron in strands 0
- VigoImported plum 0
- badiaPure selected saffron (Azafran) 0
- McCormick GourmetAll natural Spanish saffron 0
- SandafaPure saffron thread of the highest quality 0
- Regards, NutsPeeled sesame seeds 0
- WoodstockuOrganic Sesame Tahini Unsalted 0
- Al Wadi Al AkhdarTahina 100% ground sesame 0
- Cereal brainOrganic hulled sesame seeds 0
- Bob's Red MillShelled white sesame of high quality 0
- Penzey's spicesWhite hulled sesame seeds 0
- RolandPure ground tahini sesame 0
- JFCHigh quality roasted white sesame 0
- SandafaSesame seeds, raw 0
- Spice islandsGround thyme
- Mortona and BassettaGround thyme
- McCormickGround thyme
- TunaGround thyme
- Happy belly(Amazon) Ground thyme
- When LaxmiTurmeric powder 0
- Spice islandsTurmeric 0
- SandafaTurmeric powder (Turmeric) 0
- Just organicTurmeric 0
- badiaGround Turmeric (Ground Turmeric) 0
- Kirkland signature(Costco) Ground turmeric
- Mortona and BassettaTurmeric
- McCormickGround turmeric
- FlowerGround turmeric
- Great value(Walmart) Organic ground white pepper 0
- Penzey's spicesFinely ground Indonesian white pepper 0
- badiaGround white (white pepper) 0
- Mortona and BassettaGround white pepper 0
- Spice islandsGround white pepper 0
- SandafaGround white pepper 0
- McCormickGround white pepper 0
- FlowerWhite pepper 0
* Threshold of concern for adults not reached.
Editor's Note:This article also appeared in the December 2021 issue of Consumer Reports.
Lisa L. Gill
Lisa L. Gill is an award-winning investigative reporter. This data has been featured in Consumer Reports since 2008 and includes health and food safety -- heavy metals in the food supply and foodborne illness -- as well as health care and prescription drug costs, medical debt and creditworthiness. Lisa has also testified before Congress and the Food and Drug Administration about her work on drug costs and safety. She lives in a small do-it-yourself house, where she looks after the garden during the day and watches the Milky Way at night.
The Douglas County Health Department says the spices most likely to contain lead include cumin, curry powder, masala, paprika, turmeric and chili powder. Herbs most likely to contain lead include oregano and bay leaves. Lead has also been found in some tea leaves and dark chocolate.Which spices have lead and arsenic? ›
The Douglas County Health Department says the spices most likely to contain lead include cumin, curry powder, masala, paprika, turmeric and chili powder. Herbs most likely to contain lead include oregano and bay leaves. Lead has also been found in some tea leaves and dark chocolate.What spices have high levels of heavy metals? ›
Lead was found in every spice tested including organic brands and those sold by grocery and specialty stores. All spices tested contained some level of lead, including turmeric, basil, ginger, thyme, curry powder, and turmeric and ginger root supplements.Are there heavy metals in McCormick spices? ›
McCormick & Co. shook off, for now, a false-ad suit over spices that allegedly could contain heavy metals, as a federal court said the packaging statement “The Taste You Can Trust” is too vague to support consumer protection claims.Which Spice brands don t have heavy metals? ›
- Simply Organic Basil.
- Simply Organic Black Pepper.
- Simply Organic Chili Powder.
- Simply Organic Coriander.
- Simply Organic Ground Cumin.
- Simply Organic Curry Powder.
- Simply Organic Garlic Powder.
- Simply Organic Ginger.
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.
- Cilantro. Our bodies are exposed to heavy metals every day via food, water, pharmaceuticals, manufactured products, pollution, and more. ...
- Dandelion. ...
- Milk Thistle. ...
- Red Clover. ...
The samples were tested against the values set by the Food Safety and Standards (Contaminants, Toxins & Residues) Regulations, 2011 for non-organic turmeric powder. Three organic brands had higher than permissible levels of Copper. Fabindia had the highest level of 7.20 mg/kg as against the limit of 5.0 mg/kg.What herbs absorb heavy metals? ›
sativum (garlic), S. marianum (milk thistle), C. sativum (cilantro), Ginkgo biloba (gingko), C. longa (turmeric), phytochelatins, triphala, herbal fibers and Chlorophyta (green algae) can be considered as the potential treatments for the heavy metals poisoning.Why should I check my McCormick spices? ›
When spices age, they lose their flavor, so adding old spices to your dishes is pretty pointless. McCormick recommends making sure your spices have a strong aroma and taste, as well as a vibrant color. It's also good practice to replace them every three years.
McCormick & Co., the spice and condiment company, was slapped with a consumer class action Tuesday in California Northern District Court. The suit, filed by Bursor & Fisher, contends that an array of McCormick brand spices contain heightened levels of lead, arsenic, and cadmium.What three seasonings did McCormick recall? ›
On Tuesday, July 27, McCormick announced a voluntary recall of three popular seasoning blends: McCormick Perfect Pinch Italian Seasoning, McCormick Culinary Italian Seasoning, and Frank's RedHot Buffalo Ranch Seasoning. At this time, no illnesses have been reported in connection to the salmonella outbreak.Is turmeric a lead warning? ›
In July 2017, three years into her PhD research, Forsyth and the team shared their stunning findings: Turmeric mixed with lead-chromate pigments contained lead levels up to 500 times the Bangladesh legal limit of 2.5 micrograms per gram, making it the most likely cause of the lead poisonings.How do you avoid spices with heavy metals? ›
Check labels for heavy metal content when buying commercial foods. When it comes to your spices, lean into the ones that the study generally found to have safe levels. The top performers were black pepper, coriander, curry powder, garlic powder, saffron, sesame seeds, and white pepper.Does oregano have heavy metals? ›
Thyme and oregano topped the charts for the most widespread contamination; all five thyme products and seven types of ground oregano tested had concerning levels of heavy metals.What spices are a lead warning? ›
If you use spices that are commonly contaminated — such as turmeric, chili, and paprika — be sure to have your children's blood lead levels tested annually, especially children under 6 years old, Gaetz advises.What Walmart spices have lead and arsenic? ›
Plaintiffs Susan Gagetta and Traice Gomez say in a class action filed this past June that Walmart failed to tell customers that certain herbs and spices in its Great Value line including basil, chili powder, ground cumin and organic paprika and ginger, may contain lead, arsenic and cadmium.What is the most unhealthy seasoning? ›
- Alfredo sauce, soup, and other packaged sauce mixes.
- Barbecue, taco, and steak sauce.
- Dry salad dressing mixes.
- Garlic, onion, and celery salt.
- Imitation bacon bits.
- Meat tenderizers and sauces.
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Thyme and oregano were especially contaminated. The analysis uncovered “concerning” levels of heavy metals in every sample of either herb.