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  • Writer's pictureHonest Cooks

There could be Harmful Metals in Your Spices and Herbs

The study includes brands like Whole Foods, McCormick, Trader Joes, and other popular names. The research has shown that higher concentrations of heavy metals are found in turmeric powder more than any other spices tested so far, which are cumin, fennel, garlic powder and chili powder.


This post will cover these topics:


Main Results From This Research:

  1. One-third of the tested products, 40 in total, had high enough levels of arsenic, lead, and cadmium combined, on average, to pose a health concern for children when regularly consumed in typical serving sizes.

  2. Thyme and oregano–all results were concerning, so please consider growing them in your garden

  3. 31 products had levels of lead that were so high that they exceeded the maximum amount anyone should have in a day.

  4. Both organic and conventional brands tested with high levels, so organic isn’t a predictor of safer food here.

  5. 7 out of the 15 types of herbs and spices tested had heavy metal levels below the thresholds for concern.

  6. None of the tested herbs and spices were contaminated with salmonella bacteria, which may cause foodborne illness.


Harmful Effects of Heavy Metals in Spices:

Spices and their products (like turmeric) commonly used in cooking and for medicinal purposes might contain high concentrations of heavy metals like lead, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, nickel. This has been worrying scientists for a while now because the regular human exposure to these heavy metals affects the kidneys, liver, lungs, heart or central nervous system, and can even cause cardiovascular diseases, respiratory problems, cognitive delays in children, disruption of the reproductive system.


Spices have been prized for their therapeutic properties throughout history and many studies have shown that they have antioxidant, anti-carcinogenic and anti-inflammatory effects. In Ayurvedic medicine, turmeric is used to treat digestive problems, sprains, bruises and to improve skin health.

Turmeric is grown in arid soil with very little organic farming, so it receives the same amount of fertilizers as other crops. Synthetic fertilizers are rich in nitrogen compounds, which produce nitrous oxide (N2O) when they interact with soil or water. Research has shown that while cumin and fennel contain low concentrations of lead, arsenic and cadmium, they are grown in soil fertilized with animal dung (which lowers the risk of contamination) or plant compost.


Garlic powder is grown under organic conditions. The data also showed that chili powder contains very low concentrations of all metals tested for.

One downside to this study is that it was conducted on store-bought spices. If there were more rigorous farming practices and better regulation on fertilizers, this would reduce the risk of contamination with heavy metals.

I think that these findings are important for public health as they show heavy metal exposure can occur through common foods (saffron, chili powder) and it is prudent to check the conditions under which spices are grown or processed.

Which Brands Have Harmful Metals?

All brands shown in this image below contained higher than safe levels of harmful metals.


Which Brands Are Safe?

From comparing the data from Consumer Reports and CDC, Honest Cooks has compiled a list of spices that are safe to use:


How Do These Metals Harm Us?

The herb oregano might be the culprit behind unusual fatigue. It was found that out of twenty-one different brands of oregano tested by Consumer Reports, all contained worrisome levels of lead; some even contained arsenic and/or cadmium. The tests were conducted over a span of three months, and each oregano brand was selected randomly from places like grocery stores and big-box retailers.


While lead and arsenic are neurotoxins, cadmium builds up in the kidneys and can be very harmful for people with kidney damage or who already have high levels of it in their bodies. At low levels, cadmium has been linked to loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, and problems with blood sugar regulation. If a person is chronically exposed to cadmium, it increases the risk of lung and prostate cancer as well as kidney disease.

No amount of lead exposure is safe - especially for children under six years old or pregnant women. In kids, acute exposure can cause vomiting and diarrhea as well as damage to the brain and kidneys. Over the long-term, exposure can cause lower IQ levels and behavioral problems.


The worst part about the problem is that consumers have no way of knowing whether oregano contains lead or how much arsenic, cadmium, or other potentially harmful chemicals are in it because the FDA doesn't regulate these plants. While oregano seems like a healthy choice because of its high antioxidant levels, it's actually not that good of an option at all.

How Can You Keep Yourself Safe?

While the risk of heavy metals in herbs and spices is real, limiting your risk doesn’t mean dooming yourself to a life of bland food or giving up old family favorites.


Follow these tips. Choose products with the lowest levels of heavy metals.

CDC tests found at least one product that fit in No Concern category for every herb and spice they tested except oregano and thyme.

Focus on herbs and spices that are lower in heavy metals.

These were black pepper, coriander, curry powder, garlic powder, saffron, sesame seeds, and white pepper. That doesn’t mean that every brand of these herbs and spices is low in heavy metals, because CDC didn’t test them all. But it is easy to find low-risk versions of them.

Don’t assume some brands are safer than others.

CDC’s tests could not determine whether one brand was consistently better or worse than any other. And organic products did not have consistently lower levels than conventionally grown ones. While that might surprise some, CDC says the USDA’s organic standards don’t include heavy metal testing.

Grow and dry your own.

That might be a particularly good idea if you use a lot of basil, oregano, and thyme; in our tests all or almost all the brands tested were high in heavy metals.

Buy Imported Spices from Indian Stores and Asian Markets

Most grocery stores like Indian store and Asian stores have spices made for export. These have gone through thorough checks and are cleared for exports. You can get the best bang for your buck by getting spices from your local Indian Store or Asian Markets.


We hope these tips will help you buy safe spices. If you have questions about the safe levels of metals for humans, check out the CDC website.

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