What could be hiding in your dried herbs and spices?

Inside just about every Australian pantry is an assortment of dried herbs and spices. They’re a healthy way to pack your food full of flavour. But could there be more in the jar than you were expecting?

Herbs and spices can transform your meals from drab and tasteless into delicious symphonies of flavour. They’re often good for you too. Chilli can boost your metabolism and keep blood vessels healthy; rosemary is rich in antioxidants and it’s claimed turmeric can even help relieve pain.

What you’re probably not envisaging is dumping a load of heavy metals into your dinner.

A report from Consumer Report has found that in a sample of 126 individual American dried herbs and spices products, more than a third contained dangerous levels of arsenic, lead and cadmium.

Read: Scientists sound alarm over microplastics in common food

The report found thyme and oregano seemed to be the most contaminated products. All five thyme brands tested, and all seven oregano brands, showed concerning levels of heavy metal contamination.

Frequent exposure to even small amounts of lead, arsenic, cadmium, and other heavy metals, is dangerous to humans because it’s difficult for the body to break down or excrete them.

Over time, exposure to those heavy metals can contribute to central nervous system problems, hypertension and can damage the kidneys and immune system.

The list of heavy metals generally also includes mercury, chromium, copper, zinc, nickel, selenium, silver, antimony and manganese.

“When people think about heavy metals in their diet it’s probably the lead in their drinking water,” says Consumer Reports food and safety director Dr James E. Rogers.

“But our tests show that dried herbs and spices can be a surprising, and worrisome, source.”

Read: Aussie supermarkets named and shamed as junk food pushers

Thankfully in Australia, incidents of heavy metal contamination in dried herbs and spices (and other foods) is relatively rare.

Metals can be transferred into the product during the manufacturing process, either through natural contamination through the air or introduction through human error.

The many steps these products take along the supply chain, from farm to supermarket, also present opportunities for metal contamination.

While metal contamination in dried herbs and spices in Australia is uncommon, it has been noted that some fresh produce grown in Australia is susceptible to higher metal levels.

A Sydney University study found vegetable crops grown near metal smelting facilities contain alarming levels of cadmium and lead, while another from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) found high levels of more than eight different metals in Australian rice brands.

Read: How to avoid buying dangerous products this Christmas

“In Australian-grown rice varieties, the concentrations of heavy metals were considerably higher in brown rice varieties than white rice varieties, indicating Australian brown rice as a potential source of dietary heavy metals for Australian consumers,” the UTS study found.

Acceptable levels of trace metals in foods are regulated by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). Certain metals are necessary for human health in small amounts but can become toxic at higher levels.

“Copper, selenium and zinc are elements that are essential for health but they can be toxic when exposures exceed certain levels,” FSANZ says.

“Recommended daily intakes (RDIs) are set for selenium and zinc at levels sufficient to meet the needs of the majority of the healthy population (i.e. to prevent deficiency). There is no RDI for copper.”

Do you use a lot of dried herbs and spices in your cooking? Are you concerned about contamination from metals? Let us know in the comment section below.

If you enjoy our content, don’t keep it to yourself. Share our free eNews with your friends and encourage them to sign up.

Written by Brad Lockyer