September 18

Flashback Friday: Lead Contamination in Hot Sauces


Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

Lead toxicity remains “a prevalent and…major [public health] concern,” especially for babies. And, “[o]ne of the [most] important sources of lead exposure for the fetus and infant is maternal blood.” “Lead in [pregnant and nursing women’s bloodstreams] readily crosses the placenta and [into breast milk].” Where does her lead come from? Most may originate from her own skeleton, where lead from past exposures builds up. Past exposures to what? Mostly through “food…, [then] dust…, water…, and air.”

One of the more atypical sources of childhood lead poisoning in the United States are “lead-tainted candies,” including, ironically, brands with names like “Toxic Waste” (though the FDA recall “only [evidently] applie[d] to the Nuclear Sludge [variety,] not [the] other ‘Toxic Waste’…candies”). Many of the tainted candies were imported from Mexico, particularly candies “containing chili [peppers] and salt as major ingredients.” Maybe the lead was from mined salt, or grinding stones, or lead-containing pesticides; they’re not sure.

But, wait a second. There’s something else in grocery stores containing imported chilis and salt as major ingredients: hot sauce.

“In the last decade, the…FDA…has issued several warnings and recalls for food products that exceed the standards for lead. Products containing chili peppers and salt were often suspected as sources of lead contamination such as [the candies]. However, products such as hot sauces that contain similar ingredients have not been the focus of evaluations”—until now.

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They tested 25 different hot sauces, and about 9 out of 10 had detectable lead. But only four brands exceeded the FDA’s action level of 0.1 parts per million. But, that’s the candy standard; so, technically none of the hot sauces can be recalled off U.S. shelves. “Although…candy and hot sauce contain common ingredients,” there’s simply no hot sauce standard.

The most contaminated hot sauces had about a microgram of lead per teaspoon, which may be more than young kids should be getting in their daily diet. But how many six-year-olds are consuming hot sauce by the spoonful? “Although hot sauce would not intuitively be counted amongst food products highly consumed by children, ethnic and cultural practices must be considered. Chili peppers and salt are commonly used in [a variety of ways in everyday cuisine.]” And so, they want to see the same stringent candy standard applied to hot sauce. Or, at least have some limit. 

“Without enforceable standards for hot sauces,” what motivation do manufacturers have to even look into the problem? For example, it may be the soil. The dirt is just so contaminated by lead that just washing off any residue on peppers after picking may cut lead levels four-fold in the final product. But why bother taking the extra step, if no one’s checking?

Any other imports we should be concerned about? I’ve talked about the heavy metal contamination of herbal supplements—but not this kind of herbal supplement. “Several hundred people suffered lead poisoning presumably resulting from the desire of drug dealers to maximize profits.” Lead is heavy, about 50 times heavier than oregano, so “is particularly useful for driving up profits.” And, it wasn’t subtle; you could see the little lead particles. Why an epidemic of lead poisoning among young pierced students? Because dealers could make an extra $1,500 per kilo.

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