More than 300 herbs and spices are used in Chinese medicine, where cinnamon is the go-to option for those wanting relief from muscle pain, as well as being recommended to control excessive sweating, among other ailments. Spices may be added to food or steeped in liquid as a medicinal drink, often in combination.
The promise of the medicinal benefits of spices is rooted in traditional medicine. In holistic Ayurvedic medicine, which has been practised for more than 3000 years in what is now India, turmeric is mixed with milk as a remedy for colds or made into a paste that is applied as a topical treatment for sprains or inflamed joints. Curcumin has increasingly come under the scientific spotlight in recent years, with studies investigating its potential health benefits.
One of the most comprehensive summaries of a review of 700 turmeric studies to date was published by the respected ethnobotanist James A. Duke, Phd. He showed that turmeric appears to outperform many pharmaceutical in its effects against several chronic, debilitating diseases, and does so with virtually no adverse side effects.
In the past few years, as our appetite has grown for functional foods -- those with health benefits beyond their nutritional value -- spices have reached cult status. In Europe, imports of spices and herbs have increased by 6.1 percent annually between 2012 and 2016. Google searches for turmeric shot up 300 percent in the US over this period. And sales of supplements of curcumin, an active ingredient in turmeric, reportedly raked in over $20 million in 2014.
Increasing numbers of fast food chains and restaurants have climbed aboard the turmeric marketing train and are bulk sourcing turmeric from suppliers who offer contaiminated sources. Last year, at least eight turmeric spice manufacturers were been forced to issue "voluntary" recalls of their turmeric products due to dangerous levels of lead found in their spices. The official FDA recall notice can be found here.
According to the FDA page itself, "Lead can accumulate in the body over time. Too much can cause health problems, including delayed mental and physical development and learning deficiencies. Pregnant women, infants and young children especially should avoid exposure to lead. People concerned about blood lead levels should contact their physician or health clinic to ask about testing."
A recent study, published in Public Health Reports, the official journal of the US Public Health Service and the US Surgeon General, described how as many as 13 different brands of turmeric-containing products have been recalled from stores around the country due to lead contamination.
What's worse, the study also mentions several cases of child lead poisoning in the United States resulting from the consumption of spices -- including turmeric.
In an independent study, samples of turmeric were collected from over 30 retail and independent stores in the greater Boston area.
When the samples were analyzed, scientists found more than 50% contained lead concentrations well above what is allowable by the FDA.
Starts at The Source
To understand how prominent contamination was inside people’s homes, Harvard University conducted a surveillance study in rural Bangladesh.
After collecting samples from 18 households, the researchers reported lead concentrations of up to 483 ppm in turmeric samples.
The maximum allowable level of lead in India and Bangladesh is a bit more generous compared to the United States, at 2.5 ppm, but case reports routinely show contamination levels up to 100x that.
Over the years, numerous newspapers, independent organizations, and reporters have found alarmingly high levels of lead contamination in all varieties of turmeric products from stores, processing facilities, and people’s homes.
Furthermore, several international media outlets have reported that adulteration of turmeric with lead is a routine and ongoing problem today.
Are turmeric growers are intentionally adding lead? Reporters speculate that lead chromate, which is identical in color, is added to enhance the weight and the color.
Adulterated turmeric has popped up in bulk sources around the world, often distributed to local suppliers and restaurants chains. The use of color dyes give the traditional turmeric color to added fillers. According to Dr. Mercola another harmful ingredient which may be present especially in turmeric supplements is Dibasic Calcium Phosphate (DCP). The use of metanil yellow colour and lead chromate are most common. The use of color is common in countries like India. Thus is unfortunate as India is largest producer, consumer and exporter of turmeric in the world. This is known to negatively impact nervous system of body and may cause cancer according to some experts.
Finding Good Sources of Turmeric
These are typically not found in beverage chains. The easiest thing you should be doing is to see if the product you plan to buy has been certified as "organic" by a known and reputed third party agency. For example in the US. Any product which is genuinely organic gets a USDA certification. When USDA certifies this the producer can put a mark like the one in right on its product which can assure you it's tested.
It is great if your producer can meet international standards set for food safety:
- Hazards and Critical Control Points (HACCP)
- Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP)
- ISO certifications for quality, safety and other important qualities
- Kosher Food Certification