Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Your favorite dried herbs and ground spices might enhance your food with a whole lot of flavor. But according to a shocking new report, they could also be spicing up your food in a potentially dangerous way. Some of the most popular store-bought seasonings, spices and herbs have been found to contain high levels of heavy metals. And if you like a lot of spice, you might be unknowingly sprinkling harmful chemicals over everything you cook.
Before you break out your spices and herbs for dinner tonight, find out if your favorite store-bought brands include these dangerous additions.
These popular herbs and spices have concerning levels of heavy metals
How did heavy metals get discovered in everyday herbs and spices? Consumer Reports conducted testing on 15 different types of dried herbs and spices, examining 126 products from a variety of brands. Common picks like Walmart’s Great Value brand, McCormick, Penzeys, Spice Islands and even Trader Joe’s spices were tested for levels of heavy metals.
And the results were stunning. One-third of all of the products tested, or 40 in total, had high enough levels to be cause for concern. These spices and herbs tested positive for heavy metals like lead, cadmium and arsenic, with enough to pose potential danger for both adults and children who consume them.
Additionally, 31 of those 40 seasonings had alarmingly high levels of lead in particular. The lead levels were so high that they actually exceeded the maximum amount anyone should ingest on a daily basis.
The most problematic spices
So, which spices and brands posed the biggest danger? It turns out that two particular herbs had high heavy metal levels across the board, regardless of which brand packaged or sold them.
Consumer Reports divided the herbs and spices it tested into four categories: no concern, some concern, moderate concern and high concern. The higher the concern level, the higher the heavy metals content.
Both thyme and oregano had consistently significant amounts of heavy metals, according to Consumer Reports’ experts. Every one of the oregano bottles tested, including those from brands like McCormick, Spice Island, Badia and Penzeys Spices, was flagged as “some level of concern” for heavy metals. La Flor oregano was particularly problematic, as it was rated” high level of concern” for heavy metals (the most potentially dangerous level). Thyme showed similar results – all brands tested at least at the “some concern” level, with Tone’s ground thyme and Happy Belly (Amazon) ground thyme being extra-concerning.
But it wasn’t just thyme and oregano that posed a heavy metals risk. There were a variety of different dried, ground herbs and spices that were found to contain worrisome amounts of lead, arsenic and cadmium.
Two of the worst offenders found to have the highest levels of heavy metals were Spice Islands Sweet Basil, which was rated “moderate concern,” and La Flor ground turmeric, which was rated “high concern.” Fortunately, most of the other herbs and spices that were found to have heavy metal content stayed at the low “some concern” level.
What about organic herbs and spices?
Organic spices and seasoning blends would, logically, seem safer than other packaged products. After all, the organic label means they’re free of chemicals, right?
Well, you’re still going to want to carefully choose your organic herbs and spices too. Not only did factors like brand name or a “Packed in the USA” label help determine which products had high or low levels of heavy metals, but organic labels also didn’t make a difference. There were a number of organic spices tested by Consumer Reports that contained at least “some concern” levels.
So, before you simply trust that an organic herb or spice is free of potentially harmful heavy metals, make sure you check it against the report and its results.
Why heavy metals matter
While minuscule amounts of heavy metals popping up in food (or seasonings) isn’t life-altering or dangerous in most cases, the discovery of them in these commonly-used products is worth concern. Even small amounts of lead, arsenic and cadmium can be dangerous for you and your health.
At any level, heavy metals are difficult for the body to break down and eliminate. And if you regularly get small amounts of these potentially harmful substances, they can build up to a much bigger problem. The more frequently you’re exposed to heavy metals like these, the more harmful they can become.
When your body’s tissues absorb too many heavy metals, you can develop heavy metal poisoning. It’s rare, and it typically happens over a long period of time. But when you’ve ingested too much lead, arsenic or cadmium – or all three – you can develop neurological issues, high blood pressure, damage to reproductive organs, gastrointestinal issues and even brain damage.
And in addition to consuming small amounts of heavy metals in spices and herbs, you may be taking them in from other sources too. They can be in your surrounding environment, such as soil and plants or even water. Overall, to avoid long-term dangerous effects, you want to limit your exposure to heavy metals as much as possible.
Don’t throw out all of your spices – there is good news
Despite the potential dangers discovered in the above report, there’s no reason to throw out all of your herbs, spices and seasonings. Spices overall make up just a tiny fraction of your overall exposure to heavy metals.
What you do want to keep in mind, though, is how frequently you’re using herbs and spices that may contain heavy metals. You’re adding season to just about every meal you make and eat, whether you’re sprinkling dried herbs to add flavor, adding seasoning to a marinade or mixing turmeric into a morning latte. All of that can add up quickly, especially if you’re unknowingly getting heavy metal exposure from other sources too.
And mixing seasonings together, as Consumer Reports explains, can really up your intake if you’re using spices with heavy metals together – simultaneously using ¼ teaspoon servings of three “some concern” spices, for example, can raise your intake to “high concern” levels.
So, you’ll want to pare down your current herbs and spices, getting rid of those that have been tested and found to pose a potential level of concern. You can then replace those with products free of heavy metals. Remember, two-thirds of all the products tested didn’t have heavy metals. There’s reason to be concerned, but there are also plenty of spices and herbs that are completely worry-free.
How to choose herbs and spices that are free of heavy metals
To limit your risk of ingesting a whole lot of heavy metals, you’ll want to choose your spices carefully. While a single serving of even a “concerning” spice may not cause immediate harm, it’s the long-term impact you want to keep in mind.
That means you’ll need to pick out your spices based on how much heavy metal they might contain. And the best way to do that is to look at testing and examinations conducted by third parties. According to Consumer Reports, there are a number of safe brands as well as herbs and spices from a variety of brands. In general, the testing found that black pepper, white pepper, coriander, garlic powder, curry powder, saffron and sesame seeds tended to be lower in heavy metals.
Additionally, don’t assume that all spices and herbs from a particular brand are safe. Brands can have a wide range of low-to-high concentrations in different seasonings and individual products. Organic products, like we mentioned earlier, also aren’t always a shoo-in as a safe choice.
You may also want to consider growing your own herbs. Fresh herbs are a better choice in many recipes, and you’ll have a steady supply if you’re able to grow at home. It may even save you money.
Learn more about herbs and spices both fresh and dried: