Consumer Reports finds dangerous chemicals in common herbs and spices

Before you reach for that oregano, thyme and other popular herbs and spices, Consumer Reports just released a surprising report about dangerous levels of chemicals its experts found.

Before you reach for that oregano, thyme and other popular herbs and spices, Consumer Reports just released a surprising report about dangerous levels of chemicals its experts found.

“We tested 126 products and found that roughly a third had combined levels of arsenic, lead, and cadmium that were high enough to raise health concerns,” warned Consumer Reports Investigative Reporter Lisa Gill.

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

Oregano and thyme were found to be the most troublesome, with all of the products tested having levels that Consumer Reports’ experts find concerning.

The American Spice Trade Association says it’s almost impossible to rid spices of all heavy metals because of “the unavoidable presence in the environments where they are grown.

“The good news is we did find plenty of spices below our threshold of concern such as black pepper, curry powder, coriander, saffron, white pepper, and garlic powder,” said Gill.

Consumer Reports also recommends giving your spices a good sniff now and then to check if they’re still fresh. If you can’t smell the spice, regardless of how long you’ve had it, it’s probably time to throw it out.

One other note: Consumer Reports says it’s easy to grow and dry your own -- even if you don’t have a green thumb or an outdoor garden.

Full responses from the American Spice Trade Association are below:

What percentage of spices sold to U.S. consumers at retail are imported?

Nearly all dried spices and the majority of dried herbs are imported. While a small amount of herbs (e.g., parsley dill weed) and chilis can be grown domestically, most spices (e.g. black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, cloves, etc.) cannot be grown commercially in the United States due to their climate needs. A much higher percentage of the fresh herb market comes from the U.S. in distribution channels distinct from the dried herb market.

What percentage of imported spices are tested by the FDA? And how many lots does that number represent?

Unfortunately, FDA does not make this information publicly available. FDA’s PREDICT system uses an adaptive risk-based screening method to target imports based on known risks related to the product, geographic region, and history of the importer. There may be more information available from FDA about its import screening and testing programs.

What percentage of all U.S. spice sellers are members of ASTA?

While we do not track the exact number of spice companies in the United States, ASTA’s U.S.-based member companies represent a significant majority of the U.S. spice market share.

What percentage of your members have in-house testing?

The nature and scope varies from company to company, but the majority of our members have some in-house testing capabilities. Commonly, companies perform quality assurance tests in house and partner with accredited third-party laboratories to conduct microbiological, contaminant, and heavy metal tests. External laboratories are valued partners in the implementation of food safety programs. ASTA’s membership includes laboratories with spice testing specialties that collaborate with spice companies on the development of best practices and improvement of testing capabilities.

As discussed in our previous responses, there are many factors that impact the variability of heavy metals in plants like spices and herbs. It is difficult to comment specifically on thyme and oregano without understanding the full scope of which herbs and spices were tested and what differences were observed. However, some of the most significant factors are environmental variability in heavy metal levels in the soil where spices are grown, the plant species itself, and which part of the plant is being used as the spice.

The wide variety of spices and herbs available around the world derive from different parts of different plants. For example, thyme and oregano are derived from leaves, black pepper and paprika are fruits, and cumin and coriander are seeds. The biological processes related to how plants grow fruits and seeds versus how leaves or roots grow may account for different levels of heavy metals in spices. For example, some heavy metals may be more likely to be found in roots and leaves of certain plants versus other parts of the plant. More information about how plants transport/accumulate heavy metals is available in this scientific article.

Additionally, when measuring heavy metals at extremely low levels, it’s important to recognize that the risk associated with any variation in levels will still be low. Since the toxicological profile of each heavy metal is different in that there are different health endpoints and different target levels of concern, exposure assessments must be done individually for each heavy metal and commodity. Based on ASTA’s assessments, spices and herbs present low health risk to consumers because they are consumed in small quantities and typically contain low levels of heavy metals.