CR 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.
Open a drawer or cabinet in any kitchen in the U.S., and you’re likely to find several jars of dried herbs and spices.
Jessica Clark, a mother of two from Lincoln, Neb., says she uses them so often that she buys in bulk and mixes her own blends. Erica Burger of Carmel, Ind., says she became “hooked” on a 21-spice mixture—so much so that she now uses it in all sorts of dishes. “This is so flavorful, I use less salt in general,” she says. And Joey Davis, who grew up in San Diego, “where Mexican food is on every corner,” and whose Jamaican wife “puts habanero in everything, including cucumber salad,” says that in his home, “you can’t imagine any dish without spices and herbs.”
For many of us, herbs and spices play a large role in our cooking and in our family’s lives. A recipe may call for just a pinch or three of cumin, cayenne, and garlic powder, but what would your grandmother’s arroz con pollo be without them? And what about your secret Simon & Garfunkel fish rub—you know, the one with parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme?
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.
JAMES E. ROGERS, PHD
Also troubling: There was no single predictor of which products contained higher levels of heavy metals—for example, brand name didn’t matter, and neither did “organic” or “packed in USA” claims.
The good news? Many products performed well in the tests. In seven of the 15 types of herbs and spices tested, all the brands had heavy metal levels below our thresholds for concern. And in most others, we found at least one brand that fit into our No Concern category. And none of the tested herbs and spices were contaminated with salmonella bacteria, which may cause foodborne illness.
A single serving of any herb or spice CR tested is unlikely to cause harm, says James E. Rogers, PhD, director of food safety and testing at CR. And there ways to limit your risk by choosing and using spices carefully. Still, some products contain enough heavy metals, even in the small amounts used in cooking, to raise a concern when used regularly.
“When people think about heavy metals in their diet, if they do at all, it’s probably the lead in their drinking water or arsenic in their children’s fruit juices or cereals,” Rogers says. “But our tests show that dried herbs and spices can be a surprising, and worrisome, source for children and adults.”
The Threat of Heavy Metals
Frequent exposure to even small amounts of lead, arsenic, cadmium, and other heavy metals is dangerous, in part because it’s difficult for the human body to break them down or excrete them. And 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.
“Since the risks are serious,” Rogers says, “it pays to limit your intake of heavy metals as much as possible.”
Heavy metals can show up in food if the water or soil where food is grown contains them naturally or is contaminated because of pesticides or industrial uses, says Tunde Akinleye, a CR chemist who oversaw the testing. Heavy metals may also get into food, including herbs and spices, during manufacturing—from processing equipment or packaging, for example.
Laura Shumow, executive director of the American Spice Trade Association, says 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.” She also says 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. The trade group offers companies guidance on how to limit contaminants that they can implement with their suppliers.
Shumow says that according to a recent risk analysis by the ASTA, spices make up less than 0.1 percent of dietary lead exposure in children ages 1 to 6. And even for adults, she says, the ASTA believes the risk is low “in large part because spices are a very small component of the diet.”
But CR’s data underscore a broader problem. “People reach for the herbs and spices in their kitchens multiple times a day,” Akinleye says. And for certain spices, just one serving—¾ teaspoon or more—per day leaves little room for heavy metal exposure from other sources. For example, CR’s previous testing found that some brands of fruit juice, baby food, and rice contain troubling amounts of heavy metals.
And smaller amounts of certain products could be a concern if they are combined with others in a recipe. For example, a dish that has just ¼ teaspoon each of Great Value (Walmart) Chili Powder, Trader Joe’s Organic Cumin, and La Flor Oregano per serving would contain enough arsenic, cadmium, and lead to pose a concern.
Other research also suggests that herbs and spices can contribute to heavy metal exposure. For instance, a 2018 study in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found high lead levels in 22 percent of food samples—mostly spices and herbal remedies—taken from homes of children with lead poisoning in North Carolina.
And a 2010 study linked a case of lead poisoning in a 12-month-old Massachusetts boy in part to turmeric used by the family. Five similar cases were later discovered in Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, and New York. And more than a dozen turmeric products have been recalled since 2011.
CR’s tests, however, demonstrate that it is possible for herb and spice companies to limit heavy metals in their products. “About two-thirds of the spices we tested did not have concerning levels of heavy metals,” Akinleye says. “So we know spices don’t have to have worrisome amounts of lead or 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 hasn’t set limits on heavy metals in food, except in a few cases, such as arsenic in infant rice cereal and lead in candy. But spice companies are required to periodically conduct a food safety analysis, which includes controlling chemical hazards such as heavy metals, says Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at CR.
“Heavy metal content testing is part of a wider risk assessment process the FDA may undertake if it determines that sample collection and analysis is warranted for a specific shipment,” an agency spokesperson said.
Importantly, the FDA can also test herbs and spices shipped to the U.S. and block products if it identifies a health risk. That’s important because most spices sold in the U.S. are grown abroad—in countries such as China, India, and Vietnam—and some research suggests that oversight of food production there is sometimes less rigorous.
However, while you might want to know where the herbs and spices you use are grown, that’s not easy to determine. CR’s food safety experts found many labeled as “packed in USA,” but no other information was listed. Other products listed multiple countries, which suggests the final product was a mixture from more than one source.
Currently, about two dozen spice companies from 11 countries are subject to import alerts for lead contamination, which signal to regulators that they can detain those products. But that represents a fraction of the herbs and spices shipped to the U.S. In addition, the limited testing the FDA has done on spices has been focused on harmful bacteria, such as salmonella, not heavy metals, Ronholm says.
The lack of regulation leaves much of the monitoring of heavy metal levels to companies. CR contacted all the ones with products in our tests to see how they limited heavy metals.
Of the companies that replied to our questions—Al Wadi Al Akhdar, Costco, Bolner’s Fiesta, Gebhardt, Litehouse, McCormick, Roland Foods, Spice Islands, Target, and Whole Foods—a few said they require their suppliers to have a program for controlling or testing for heavy metals. But only three—Al Wadi Al Akhdar, Bolner’s Fiesta, and McCormick—specifically said they test products in their manufacturing plants for heavy metals.
Costco, Litehouse, and McCormick said their goal is to have heavy metals as close to zero as possible, but no company provided the thresholds they consider acceptable.
For years, California has required that products that exceed limits for substances known to cause cancer or reproductive harm, including heavy metals, carry a warning label. But New York is currently the only state to have enacted limits for heavy metals in herbs and spices.
It set them after issuing recalls of more than 100 herbs and spices because of heavy metal contamination since 2016, says Jola Szubielski, a spokesperson for the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. Once enforcement begins, the state can force a recall of products with elevated levels of heavy metals.
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.
That means not only choosing seasonings that pose little risk when you can but also, for example, testing your water for lead and arsenic and, if levels are high, installing a water filter.
By Lisa L. Gill
For a list of spice and herb products free of heavy metals see my article “Spices Free From Concerning Heavy Metals Lead, Arsenic & Cadmium“.