How to Avoid Lead Exposure from Spices

A new study found lead was in more than 50 percent of spice samples.

Spices are often hailed as a healthy way to prevent adding excessive salt or fats to flavor meals.

But a new report found some spices can potentially cause health problems through lead exposure.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, examined lead poisoning cases related to spices purchased abroad and sheds light on how to ensure your spices are safe to consume.

Paromita Hore, PhD, MPH, and colleagues at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene investigated consumer products with regard to lead exposure. They tested more than 3,000 products between 2008 and 2017.

The team found that spices purchased overseas were most at risk of leading to lead exposure.

The items were part of lead poisoning cases and local store surveys. Spices were most recently tested, with about 1,500 samples from 41 countries examined.

Lead was detected in more than half of the spice samples. More than 30 percent had lead concentrations greater than 2 parts per million (ppm), which is the allowable limit for lead in certain food additives.

Spices purchased overseas had higher lead content levels compared to those purchased in the United States.

When purchased domestically, turmeric and Georgian kharcho suneli bought in New York City had average lead concentrations below 2 ppm. But those same spices purchased overseas had average concentrations exceeding 50 ppm.

Spices bought in Georgia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Morocco had the highest lead concentrations. Most of the contaminated spices were in unmarked containers that didn’t show brand name information.

The highest lead levels were found in the Georgian spice kviteli kvavili, or yellow flower. Examples of other contaminated spices purchased abroad included turmeric, hot pepper, chili powder, and paprika.

The authors say public health professionals and medical providers should also be aware that spices could be a risk factor of lead exposure and screen populations at risk.

Get the lead out

The problem of lead exposure from spices is nothing new. Studies have been conducted in the past about contamination. A study out last year named turmeric a spice of concern, citing a 2011 recall of the spice.

In May of this year, the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an import alert stating ports could detain shipments from certain importers. They targeted turmeric from India and Bangladesh.

“Based on what the data are showing us so far, buying spices in the U.S. instead of online or when traveling overseas seems to be a good way to protect yourself, because the spices that have been legally imported into the U.S. at least have the chance of going through heavy metal screening upon import,” said Kim Gaetz, a public health epidemiologist based in North Carolina.

“Almost all spices are imported, but the lead levels seem to be highest in those that were actually purchased outside of the U.S.,” Gaetz added.

A global problem

Authors of the current study say people need to realize that spice contamination is a global issue.

“Overall, a solely localized or national approach to address spice contamination will not be adequate, as the problem is global,” they said in a statement.

In the United States, excessive lead levels haven’t been noted in the “mainstream” U.S. spice industry, which includes major brands or those doing business with major food companies.

Case studies have noted elevated lead levels in families who imported spices from countries including India, Pakistan, and the Republic of Georgia, says Laura Shumow, executive director of the American Spice Trade Association (ASTA).

Low levels of lead naturally occur in the environment, she notes.

The FDA hasn’t set a limit of lead in spices, but Shumow says ASTA would support the action.

Safe spices

As for panic over spices, Shumow says not to worry.

“Consumers should feel confident in the quality of their spices if they are purchasing spices represented by major brands that are sold at reputable retailers,” she said. “Major brands source spices from around the world and have appropriate systems in place to ensure the quality and safety of their product.”

Sharon Palmer, RDN, known as “The Plant-Powered Dietitian,” says people shouldn’t give up on consuming herbs and spices since they’re healthy for us.

“You can also grow a lot of herbs yourself and purchase them locally,” she suggested.

As for the lead issue, that’s mostly a concern with imported spices, so Palmer advises that people purchase as much as possible locally.

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.

Parents should also inform their pediatricians about any herbal remedies given to their children.

And everyone should purchase spices and medicines in the United States. “Do not use spices or medicine purchased online or sent overseas by friends and family,” Gaetz said.

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