Do McCormick spices contain heavy metals?

By February 15, 2024 Environment, Health

We came across the following post on the social media platform X/Twitter:

The video in the post depicts a person telling the viewer not to buy McCormick spices as McCormick had been ‘sued for having heavy metals in their spices’.

The person also added that ‘ground basil, ginger and turmeric were among the products that were found (to have a) heightened level of heavy toxic metals’.

‘These metals can cause cancer and serious damage to brain development’, he concludes.

When we investigated these allegations, we found credible reports that substantiated the claim that McCormick had faced a lawsuit for its herbs and spices containing ‘significant levels of toxic heavy metals’.

McCormick is one of the world’s largest spice companies, with several of its products widely available in Singapore.

The Lawsuit, and a Concerning Report

According to the reports, the class-action lawsuit had been filed on 18 January 2022 in a California federal court, alleging that McCormick had failed to test for heavy metals and disregarded their consumers’ health.

The suit heavily references a Consumer Reports (CR) article from November 2021 titled ‘Your Herbs and Spices Might Contain Arsenic, Cadmium, and Lead’. Consumer Reports is an American nonprofit consumer organisation that aims to guide consumers on the safety and performance of products.

The report tested 15 types of dried herbs and spices, with 126 individual products in total, from national and private-label brands in the US. These included McCormick and other brands such as Great Value (Walmart) and Trader Joe’s.

Updated details from the lawsuit revealed that the case had been dismissed in September 2023 on the grounds that the plaintiffs had ‘failed to show that the labelling (on McCormick products) is likely to mislead (consumers)’.

This may not be an end to the lawsuit, as details from court proceedings reveal that the judge has granted time for the plaintiffs to file an amended complaint.

Health Risks from Heavy Metals

The CR article affirmed the health risks of ingesting heavy metals, saying that in adults, it can ‘contribute to central nervous system problems, reproductive problems, and hypertension, and can damage kidney and immune function’.

It also mentioned that in children, it can ‘affect brain development, increasing the risk for behavioural problems and lower IQ’.

Unlike in the claim, cancer was not directly mentioned as a health risk. However, we did find medical articles that listed cancer as an example of the complications of heavy metals toxic effects.

CR explains that heavy metals can show up in food if the water or soil where it is grown contains them naturally or is contaminated from pesticides or industrial uses. The manufacturing process can also cause heavy metals to enter food.

CR also quotes the head of the American Spice Trade Association, who says it is almost impossible to rid herbs and spices of heavy metals because of the ‘unavoidable presence in the environments where they are grown’.

How Does McCormick Compare?

CR’s testing methodology placed products that were of ‘some concern’ as less concerning than others that were labelled to be of ‘moderate concern’ or ‘high concern’. Products that met the criteria for lower levels of heavy metals were labelled to be of ‘no concern’.

According to CR’s test results, 6 McCormick products showed ‘some concern’ when tested for heavy metals. This included McCormick’s ground basil, ground ginger, ground oregano, paprika, ground thyme and ground turmeric products.

CR found, however, that there was ‘no single predictor of which products contained higher levels of heavy metals’, and that brand name was not a reliable indicator for heavy metal levels. For example, Great Value, Walmart’s label, had 5 products of concern.

Some other brands had fewer products of concern but had a larger proportion of its products that were found to be of concern, or had products that were of higher concern, such as the brand La Flor.

The most reliable indicator for concerning levels of heavy metals appeared to be the type of herb itself, rather than the brand. All the thyme and oregano products, for instance, had heavy metal levels that CR found to be concerning. All but one each of the basil and ginger product ranges also had concerning heavy metal levels.

CR said that when they contacted the companies involved, only nine replied to their questions. Of these, only three, one of which was McCormick, ‘specifically said that they test products in their manufacturing plant for heavy metals’.

McCormick also told CR that their ‘goal is to have heavy metals as close to zero as possible’, though they did not provide a threshold that they considered acceptable.

CR also indicated that spices may not be the only source of risk from heavy metals, pointing out that previous testing of fruit juice, baby food and rice revealed troubling amounts of heavy metals in some products.

A web search also revealed that several other spice makers, such as Badia and Walmart, are facing lawsuits for their products containing heavy metals.

Better With a Pinch of Salt

In conclusion, we find that the claims that McCormick had been sued for having heavy metals in their spices is valid. It is also true that ground basil, ginger and turmeric were the products with heightened levels of heavy metals, and that heavy metals could cause cancer or damage brain development in children.

However, we find the post to be misleading as it misrepresents the information in the CR article, the primary source, which does not find the McCormick brand to be an indicator for the presence of heavy metals in the tested products.

While the post appears to suggest an alternative brand would be preferable, it neglects to mention that other widely available products in the US are also facing lawsuits or have products that performed poorly in the tests. The fact that the McCormick lawsuit was dismissed is also not addressed.

As such, we find this claim to be partially true with misleading elements.

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