Your herbs and spices may contain lead, cadmium, arsenic, Consumer Reports finds

Tests showed oregano and thyme poses most concern for heavy metals

Herbs and spices give your home cooking flavor and kick, but a Consumer Reports investigation found those pinches and dashes may also contain heavy metals.

“We tested 126 products and found that roughly a third had combined levels of arsenic, lead, and cadmium that were high enough to raise health concerns,” said Consumer Reports’ Lisa Gill.

In 31 products, levels of lead were so high they exceeded the maximum amount anyone should have in a day, according to Consumer Reports’ experts.

Most troublesome, they found, were oregano and thyme. All of those products tested had levels that their experts found concerning.

The American Spice Trade Association said it’s almost impossible to rid spices of all heavy metals because of “the unavoidable presence in the environments where they are grown.”

“The good news is we did find plenty of spices below our threshold of concern such as black pepper, curry powder, coriander, saffron, white pepper and garlic powder,” Gill said.

Consumer Reports tested dried herbs and spices from 38 brands but did not find consistently worrisome levels within a particular brand.

Three products reached their “high concern” threshold: La Flor ground oregano, La Flor ground turmeric and Happy Belly (Amazon) ground thyme.

American Spice Trade Association response to Consumer Reports:

What percentage of spices sold to U.S. consumers at retail are imported?

Nearly all dried spices and the majority of dried herbs are imported. While a small amount of herbs (e.g., parsley dill weed) and chilis can be grown domestically, most spices (e.g. black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, cloves, etc.) cannot be grown commercially in the United States due to their climate needs. A much higher percentage of the fresh herb market comes from the U.S. in distribution channels distinct from the dried herb market.

What percentage of imported spices are tested by the FDA? And how many lots does that number represent?

Unfortunately, FDA does not make this information publicly available. FDA’s PREDICT system uses an adaptive risk-based screening method to target imports based on known risks related to the product, geographic region, and history of the importer. There may be more information available from FDA about its import screening and testing programs.

What percentage of all U.S. spice sellers are members of ASTA?

While we do not track the exact number of spice companies in the United States, ASTA’s U.S.-based member companies represent a significant majority of the U.S. spice market share.

What percentage of your members have in-house testing?

The nature and scope varies from company to company, but the majority of our members have some in-house testing capabilities. Commonly, companies perform quality assurance tests in house and partner with accredited third- party laboratories to conduct microbiological, contaminant, and heavy metal tests. External laboratories are valued partners in the implementation of food safety programs. ASTA’s membership includes laboratories with spice testing specialties that collaborate with spice companies on the development of best practices and improvement of testing capabilities. As discussed in our previous responses, there are many factors that impactthe variability of heavy metals in plants like spices and herbs. It is difficult to comment specifically on thyme and oregano without understanding the full scope of which herbs and spices were tested and what differences were observed. However, some of the most significant factors are environmental variability in heavy metal levels in the soil where spices are grown, the plant species itself, and which part of the plant is being used as the spice. The wide variety of spices and herbs available around the world derive from different parts of different plants. For example, thyme and oregano are derived from leaves, black pepper and paprika are fruits, and cumin and coriander are seeds. The biological processes related to how plants grow fruits and seeds versus how leaves or roots grow may account for different levels of heavy metals in spices. For example, some heavy metals may be more likely to be found in roots and leaves of certain plants versus other parts of the plant. Additionally, when measuring heavy metals at extremely low levels, it’s important to recognize that the risk associated with any variation in levels will still be low. Since the toxicological profile of each heavy metal is different in that there are different health endpoints and different target levels of concern, exposure assessments must be done individually for each heavy metal and commodity. Based on ASTA’s assessments, spices and herbs present low health risk to consumers because they are consumed in small quantities and typically contain low levels of heavy metals.

About the Author

Marilyn Moritz is an award-winning journalist dedicated to digging up information that can make people’s lives a little bit better. As KSAT’S 12 On Your Side Consumer reporter, she focuses on exposing scams and dangerous products and helping people save money.

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