Sorry, But There Is Probably Lead In Your Dried Spices

So what does that mean in terms of health risks? And how can you avoid it?

Four bottles of dried spices spilling out of their jars
Photo: LeventKonuk/Getty Images/Allrecipes

Just when you thought all you needed to worry about was E. coli in your romaine or salmonella in your chicken breasts, Consumer Reports has released a study that says that chances are pretty good there is lead in your spice rack. Because of course there is. While risks to your health are minimal unless you snack on dried herbs by the bottleful, it's still a troubling new piece of information on the food market.

The study included 126 products from all the mainstream brands carried by big chain stores. They chose the 15 most popular herbs and spices to test. Since there is no FDA protocol that requires testing for heavy metals, especially from spices and herbs imported from abroad, it was somewhat unsurprising that their results were clear. While most products contained trace amounts within the safety range, roughly one third (more than 40 products) contained levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium or a combination that was over the limit for safety with regular consumption when it comes to children, and some had levels high enough to be of concern for adults as well. Thyme and oregano, two of the most popular dried herbs, had the levels that were most troubling, and 31 products contained levels of lead that would exceed an allowable amount for a day's consumption.

Is Lead In Spices Dangerous?

While consistent ingestion of heavy metals can lead to health problems over the long term, most products Consumer Reportes tested are perfectly safe to consume. As with any food product, you will want to determine your own comfort level when sourcing spices and herbs for your family use. It can make sense to source from smaller independent spice companies who build relationships directly with producers, like Spicewalla, Diaspora or Burlap and Barrel. The bonus will be that those spices and herbs are likely to also be much fresher and have greater variety than the grocery store brands. When it comes to those major consumer brands, McCormick is one of the domestic producers that does test for heavy metals in its factory.

How to Prevent Consuming Lead From Spices

In general, you don't necessarily need to alter your cooking and eating. We always recommend you replace dried herbs and ground spices after six months at room temperature, and whole spices after one year, for quality's sake and to prevent rancidity in oily spices. So, if you are a bit behind on that, take the opportunity to replace your spices with brands that have the strongest records. If you grow your own herbs during the warmer months, you can make your own dried herbs easily and be confident in what you are eating all year long.

Consumer Reports says that your heavy metal intake is a big picture issue, impacted by things like your local water supply and other foods you eat. While it is extremely unlikely that just using herbs and spices would have health repercussions on their own, if you have other risk factors in your home or diet, it could be contributory. If you are concerned, to limit risk, you can take a few simple steps. Use a water filter to improve the quality of your drinking water at home. 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.

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