INVESTIGATES: Heavy metals, chemicals found in many spices, Consumer Reports study finds

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Something found in many kitchens -- and something many use to eat healthy -- may contain chemicals and heavy metals.

Consumer Reports tested spices and herbs. In 31 products, the levels of lead were so high they exceeded the maximum amount anyone should have in one day. They tested everything from basil to turmeric across brands like Whole Foods and Walmart.

The results were concerning to Judy Racz, owner of organic restaurant Mio.

“It really is the most important thing,” she tells Action News Jax about feeding her family. “It’s what they’re eating.”

That’s why her chef uses mostly fresh herbs rather than dried, and those that are dried come hand selected.

But many kitchens don’t have that option, instead turning to store bought brands like McCormick’s, Spice Islands or Walmart’s Great Value. And while cooking at home is a healthy option, what you cook with may not be.

“Heavy metals and arsenic for a child’s growing brain is like, the worst thing that you can possibly do,” Racz said.

And yet that’s what Consumer Reports found in many common items.

The study looked at 15 types of herbs and spices across several popular brands. Of the 126 individual items tested, 40 had high enough levels of arsenic, cadmium and lead combined, on average, to pose health concerns to children in typical serving sizes.

Heavy metals are hard for the body to break down and get rid of, so they build up over time. In children, the study says, it can affect brain development, increase behavioral problems and lower IQ. In adults, it can contribute to central nervous system problems, reproductive problems, hypertension and can damage kidney or immune function.

Black pepper, chili powder, coriander, curry powder, garlic powder, saffron, sesame seed and white pepper all fared well across all tested brands. When it comes to cumin powder, paprika and turmeric, be selective with which brand you buy. But of the ginger, but more specifically oregano and thyme brands tested, Consumer Reports found no good options, saying they all have concerning levels of heavy metals.

In response, the American Spice Trade Association told Consumer Reports it’s almost impossible to rid spices and herbs of all heavy metals because of the “unavoidable presence in the environments where they are grown.” It does say it offers guidance to companies on how to limit contaminants.

But for local farmer, Rebecca Isola, that’s not enough. It’s also why she’s added herbs to her typical repertoire of organic flowers sold at the farmers market.

“People are reaching for something that they think is healthy -- because it’s not salt; it’s not fat, it’s not sugar … but they are putting things in their food that they aren’t aware of,” Isola said.

She said two of the worst offenders -- oregano and thyme -- are actually two of the easier ones to grow at home. A little herb garden in a pot can go a long way.

“The less chemicals we consume the better,” she said.

A single herb or spice used once is unlikely to cause harm, the study said. But over time, and with repeated exposure, come growing concerns. That’s why what why you pick, fresh or dry, matters.

Consumer Reports is asking the FDA for stricter limits on heavy metals in food. Their petition can be found here: FDA: Protect Americans from heavy metal exposure (consumerreports.org)