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Watch Out! Some Indian Spices Contain Lead

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The news that some Indian spices contain dangerous lead levels sent shudders down my spine. I feed my toddler food cooked with Indian spices several days a week.


Ronda Kaysen: Around the time my son was born, my husband and I decided to have a mostly vegetarian diet. I started cooking a lot of Indian recipes because of all the delicious vegetarian dishes. Some of my son's first foods included generous amounts of turmeric, garam masala and black mustard seeds. The news that these spices could be filling his veins with lead is shocking.

The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, says that young children who regularly eat some imported Indian spices might be exposed to lead, which is a serious neurotoxin. The study followed patients at Children's Hospital in Boston from 2006 to 2009 who had been exposed to Indian spices and powders. The biggest culprits were spices like turmeric (which contain dyes) and powders used in Indian religious ceremonies (like sindoor, which is applied to the skin).

The researchers tested 86 spices and 71 ceremonial powders from 15 Indian specialty stores in the Boston area. Three varieties of salt exceeded the E.U. guidelines for lead. About 25 percent of the food spices -- including cardamom, fenugreek and chili powder -- contained more than one microgram of lead per gram of product, as did about 65 percent of the ceremonial powders. Although the numbers fall below the E.U.'s acceptable levels, the researchers say that any lead presence should be something to worry about.

Lead poisoning is no joke. It can cause brain damage in children and serious behavioral changes. And the effects are cumulative over time.

Lately, it seems like lead is lurking everywhere. During the lead-toys-from-China scare, I chose my son's toys carefully. And when news broke that Mexican candies may contain lead, I avoided the delectable treats -- even though we were living in Mexico at the time. But spices seemed so innocuous. Unlike toys and candy (which can be avoided), spices are a central part of my family's diet. Eliminating them is far more difficult. I opened my spice cabinet today and scoured the brands; among them were those tested (such as Swad). American-made versions of these spices are far more expensive, and sometimes nearly impossible to find. Beyond the Indian spices, studies like this remind me just how little we know about what is in the foods we eat.

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