Heavy Metals in Spices

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Turmeric is in the news again after being identified as the source of lead poisoning in at least four Seattle-area families recently - how can you protect yourself and your family? I break it all down here. 

Let me start with some good news first. Although lead poisoning sounds scary, the blood levels in the average American has dropped since the 1990s thanks to public health measures like taking lead out of gasoline and the banning of lead pipes in 1986. 

However, it is now sadly being found in our everyday products like supplements, protein powders, matcha and yup - herbs and spices. 

Although devastating, lead poisoning via turmeric is nothing new. New York City’s health department tested nearly 1,500 samples of spices between 2008 and 2017 and found detectable levels of lead in nearly half the samples of turmeric. 

A more recent *Consumer Report Nov 2021 which tested 126 herbs and spices found: 

  • 40 products had high enough levels of arsenic, lead, and cadmium combined to pose a health threat to children when consumed regularly in typical serving sizes
  • 31 products had levels of lead that exceeded the maximum amount anyone should have in a day

I hear many of you say: “This is depressing. We think we are being healthy by adding these beneficial herbs and spices to our food, and then we learn that so many of them are contaminated by harmful heavy metals…”

I hear you. I am super frustrated too and I know it’s overwhelming.

However, I encourage you to focus on that which is within your control and turn this mindset around. There ARE things within our control; celebrate the fact you are here learning and empowering yourself with information that will help protect you and your family. 

First things first

Do. Not. Panic. 

A single serving of turmeric or another spice that contains lead or other heavy metal is unlikely to cause you harm since the quantity used is small. We have detox organs. 

When it comes to toxicity, it is important to take a big picture approach and think about:

  • Your OVERALL exposure - how much, how often
  • Your detox capabilities (i.e. how well your body can eliminate these exposures)
  • It is the dance between these two factors that determine whether you suffer ill effects of toxins. If you have poor detox capabilities, tiny amounts can affect your health. If you have great detox capabilities, you can weather more exposures.  
 
 
 
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The reason we hear about lead poisoning more frequently in children is because kids have limited detox capabilities (their detox organs are not fully mature yet, and many are lacking important nutrients from their detox), and pound for pound of body weight, they are exposed to more toxins than adults. This is why it is particularly important to protect babies and children, and to support them with food/lifestyle that enhances detoxification (what I teach inside Detox Right)

What’s the scoop on turmeric and lead?

For a few years now, it has been known that turmeric can be a source of lead in the US. How does lead get into turmeric? 

  • Contamination in the soil which the plant takes up while growing (so far there doesn’t seem to be any protection with ‘organic’ i.e. organic does not mean it’s lower in heavy metals)
  • Contamination during processing & manufacturing (why whole foods always beats processed foods) 
  • Adulteration - lead chromate can be deliberately added to brighten the vibrancy of the color of turmeric. 

So should we just ditch spices to avoid lead and heavy metals? NO! Turmeric is one of the most healthful foods - it is a powerful antioxidant, supports brain health, detoxification, and something I can consume daily. 

What can we do to protect ourselves from excessive lead in turmeric and spices? 

  • Firstly, evaluate your overall exposure. How much do you eat? Are there other sources of exposures of heavy metals in your life:
    • Supplements - ironically, many ‘detox’ supplements contain heavy metals
    • Chinese and Ayuvedic medicines
    • Protein powders
    • Matcha
    • Medicinal mushrooms
    • Drinking water 
    • Old paint  

If you eat a lot of turmeric or have frequent intake of other lead-containing products, it is worth asking brands of the products you frequently use for their Certificate of Analysis and look at the heavy metal content. (I teach this inside Detox Right).

If you have babies or children, also look into better infant cereal or juices which have also been found to contain heavy metals.  

What do I like and use? 

*Before you read on, just wanted to let you know that when I like a product, I reach out to companies and ask for discount codes for us. Sometimes, this code allows me to earn a small commission. I would only share products I like and personally use, and appreciate your continued support which allows me to continue creating content like this. 

I know some of you will ask me what I use - I’ve seen the COA for turmeric from the following brands: which looked low in 2021, but I can’t promise they will stay this way:

Burlap Barrel, Diaspora (I use these in my cooking) - be sure to pair with black pepper to enhance the bioavailability of the active compound curcumin. 

- Pique - I love this for making turmeric latte with - this is what I have post-dinner most nights. (Discount code: Platefulhealth)

- Simply Organic Turmeric was also found to be good by Consumer Report last year. I have not personally looked at this, but it is widely available. 

I always encourage you to do your own research and learn how to read a COA so you can be empowered with better choices because each batch will have varying heavy metal levels, it might change year to year, and nobody can control what a food company does with sourcing in the future. 

Some tips:

  1. Don’t assume that just because the turmeric for a brand tested low for heavy metals, that ALL the spices from that brand are safe - this is not the case. The levels differ across the spices and herbs.     
  2. Organic does not mean lower heavy metals. Organic refers to farming methods and pesticides - it does not reflect heavy metals generally, which is usually via inadvertent contamination (or sometimes adulteration, as mentioned above)
  3. Thyme and Oregano were found to be the most contaminated herbs - it is unclear why this may be, but a good solution may be to grow your own. Luckily, these two are super hardy and easy to grow - I’ve had them (and rosemary) for years and it requires minimal effort.
  4. Herbs and spices that were found to be relatively low in heavy metals (in the consumer report): black pepper, coriander, curry powder, garlic powder, saffron, sesame seeds, and white pepper. 

Here’s the kicker...

Lead toxicity (and toxicity in general) is difficult to discern. Symptoms can be vague and mild until the levels start to rise. Many ‘mystery symptoms’ I’ve seen in my patients and clients over the years have been attributed to toxicity (heavy metals, mold etc), but these were missed by clinicians who didn’t have toxicity on their radar. 

What symptoms might suggest lead toxicity? 

Here are some signs and symptoms of lead toxicity in children - please note, this is not diagnostic - this is for general education, and you should always work with your medical provider so they can take the appropriate assessments as other conditions may also cause these symptoms:

  • Developmental delay e.g. late speech, walking. 
  • Anemia
  • Learning difficulties or lowered IQ
  • Irritability
  • Tiredness 
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Hearing loss
  • Seizures
  • Eating things, such as paint chips, that aren't food (pica)

Some signs and symptoms in adults (again, this is not diagnostic, work with your doctor) :

  • High blood pressure
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Difficulties with memory or concentration
  • Headache
  • Abdominal pain
  • Mood disorders
  • Reduced sperm count and abnormal sperm
  • Miscarriage, stillbirth or premature birth in pregnant women

(Source: Mayo Clinic https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/lead-poisoning/symptoms-causes/syc-20354717)

 

Key takeaway

Here’s my stance and bird's eye view. There is no room for fear or anxiety around food in my opinion. Stress can adversely affect our health too, and if you are constantly eating your food in fear, even the most healthful food can be ‘toxic’.

What I try to do is to reduce my exposures where I can, within my means and, on a daily basis, support my body’s detox organs with the right food and lifestyle to enhance my detox capabilities (what I teach inside Detox Right). I truly believe knowledge is power and when we are empowered, we can do better. 

Well done for taking back control of your health! 

 

In this article, I am focusing on turmeric but if you want to see the other spices tested by *Consumer report, here is the link: https://www.consumerreports.org/food-safety/your-herbs-and-spices-might-contain-arsenic-cadmium-and-lead/