The heavy metal hiding in your spice rack

Paint. Soil. Water. Pipes. These are places you might expect to find lead.

But your spice rack? Not so much.

As a quick refresher, lead exposure can cause reproductive issues, high blood pressure, nerve disorders, poor memory, concentration problems, muscle pain and joint pain in adults. It can cause serious developmental issues in children too.

So, it’s a good idea to avoid lead whenever possible.

In recent decades, we’ve done a good job of reducing lead in our homes. Paint and pipes (in newer homes at least) are pretty much lead-free.

But several popular spices resting innocently in your spice rack could still be increasing your lead exposure…

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Why your spices aren’t safe

If you season your food with tasty favorites like turmeric, chili powder and vanilla you could be exposing yourself to unsafe levels of lead.

A new study from researchers in North Carolina found that there were high levels of lead in these and other spices.

In the study, researchers looked at sources of lead in homes where children had elevated levels of lead in their blood. Besides the usual places like paint chips and lead pipes, they found that these children were also being exposed to lead through herbal remedies, ceremonial powders and food items such as spices.

The food items with the highest levels of lead contained these spices:

  • Chili powder/red pepper
  • Cumin
  • Coriander
  • Anise
  • Turmeric
  • Vanilla

But why exactly are these spices a source of lead?

Read: It time’s to get the lead out of your water and your body

Researchers say it’s partially due to pollution. About 95 percent of spices are imported from and grown in countries with high levels of pollution from leaded gasoline, smelters, battery-manufacturing plants, and mines — all sources of lead. But sometimes lead-laced additives are deliberately mixed with spices to improve color or add weight.

Keep your spice rack lead-free

So, how do you keep yourself safe from lead-tainted spices?

Well, don’t expect government agencies to help you… at least not yet. Right now, the U.S. hasn’t set a national limit for lead contamination in spices. The reason?

Supposedly, because children don’t eat spices. And that’s the main demographic these agencies are concerned about when it comes to lead exposure. Here’s the problem with this reasoning…

Read: 6 health benefits in your spice rack

Children are eating spices. Maybe not in as high of doses as adults, but they’re eating them. Not to mention, that adults don’t exactly come out scot-free when we’re exposed to lead. So, why not do a better job of keeping it out of our food?

Until they do, you’ll have to take your own precautions, like:

  • Looking at labels. See where your spices come from. South Asian countries like India seem to be the most common source of lead-contaminated spices.
  • Grinding your own. If you can, buy fresh ingredients and grind your own spices. That will reduce the odds that they contain contaminated additives.

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Sources:

  1. Some spices may be a source of lead exposure in kids, study finds — MedicalXpress
  2. Learn about Lead — United States Environmental Protection Agency
  3. Getting the Lead Out of Spices, Powders, Supplements — North Carolina Health News
  4. Indian Spices, Powders Linked to Lead Poisoning — ABC News

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Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.