Are These Herbs and Spices Harming Your Health?

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Man putting spices on meat
Master1305 /

Regularly adding a dash of spices and herbs to your favorite dishes might put your family’s health at risk, according to recent findings from Consumer Reports.

Among 15 types of tested dried herbs and spices — 126 individual products from national and private-label brands — roughly one-third had levels of arsenic, lead and cadmium that were high enough “to pose a health concern for children when regularly consumed in typical serving sizes,” CR says.

The levels of these heavy metals also raise concerns for adult health, the publication added.

In total, 40 products raised concerns for CR testers. For both thyme and oregano, every product tested had concerning levels of heavy metals, CR reports.

Levels of lead were so high in 31 products that they exceeded the maximum amount anyone should consume in a day.

CR says the high levels of these metals cut across brand names, and that choosing products with labels such as “organic” or “packed in the USA” does not improve your odds of finding safer herbs and spices.

However, CR notes that some products performed well in the testing. Among the 15 types of herbs and spices tested, seven had heavy metal levels below thresholds of concern in all brands tested:

  • Black pepper
  • Coriander
  • Curry powder
  • Garlic powder
  • Saffron
  • Sesame seed
  • White pepper

Heavy metals are dangerous to people because it is difficult for the body to break them down or excrete them.

In children, exposure to heavy metals can impact brain development and increase the risk for behavioral problems and lower IQ, CR reports. In adults, it can contribute to:

  • Central nervous system problems
  • Reproductive problems
  • Hypertension
  • Damage to kidney and immune function

To find out more about which products pose the greatest — and least — risk, go to the Consumer Reports website.

Reducing the amount of heavy metals in your herbs and spices can be difficult. Laura Shumow, executive director of the American Spice Trade Association, tells CR that these seasonings contain heavy metals due to “the unavoidable presence in the environments where they are grown.”

One way to lower the risk of exposure is to avoid the temptation to reach for such seasonings several times a day. For some spices, just one daily serving — three-quarters of a teaspoon or more — “leaves little room for heavy metal exposure from other sources,” CR says.

CR further notes that earlier testing indicates heavy metals can be found in potentially unsafe amounts in foods such as fruit juice, baby food and rice.

To learn how to lower the amount of arsenic in rice you eat, check out “You’re Probably Cooking This Food the Wrong Way.”

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