News from CRIS: In the News - Heavy Metals in Spices

March 11, 2024

What are spices?

Spices are aromatic vegetable substances used to season foods. Spices come in many forms, including whole, broken, ground, or in other forms, but do not include oils. Familiar spices include cinnamon, basil, black pepper, rosemary, thyme, and more.

Spices can also be used to color foods. For example, paprika and turmeric not only impart flavoring, but they can add rich color to foods and beverages.

What are heavy metals? How do they get into our food?

Heavy metals are naturally occurring minerals found in soil, air, and water near vegetation (1).

Commonly discussed heavy metals include arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury, but there are many other minerals found in soil that can have adverse health impacts if consumed in sufficient quantities, such as zinc and copper (1,2).  

Certain fruits, vegetables, and grains can and do absorb heavy metals during their natural growing process. Even organically grown, non-GMO crops may contain these heavy metals (1,2).

Can human intervention cause our foods to be contaminated with heavy metals?

Elevated amounts of heavy metals can be found in plants if the growing or processing environment is near a mine or other industrial area (1).

Infrequently, unscrupulous individuals may add heavy metals to spices to increase their profits as some heavy metals' patination mimics spices' pigment (1,2). If heavy metals are intentionally added to a product people may experience more adverse health impacts depending on the volume of contaminants added to the spices.  

Why are people concerned about spices and heavy metals?

Most recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a recall of ground cinnamon and cinnamon-containing foods marketed to children due to lead contamination.

However, there have been other reports and concerns over spices heavy metal contamination. (1,2,3).

As people learn more about the potential for heavy metal contamination in spices, we see an uptick in folks researching and learning more about how these metals make their way into our foods.

What can I do to prevent heavy metals in my spices?

Quality control ensures your spices are not contaminated with heavy metals. Part of the quality control process is ensuring manufacturers have a reputable supply chain with documentation that details where the product originated and how it was handled and processed on its way to the marketplace. The quality control process also involves maintaining protocols outlined in the Current Good Manufacturing Practices.

When shopping, look for reputable brands that are publicly transparent about their sourcing and efforts to maintain quality.

It's important to remember that some products will naturally contain heavy metals, but purchasing products with transparent sourcing processes can help mitigate unnecessary risk.


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