Should I be worried about lead in my cinnamon?

Cinnamon sticks. Generic Photo.

Federal officials announced last week that lead has been found in containers of ground cinnamon often used in home cooking. Last fall, health authorities also found “extremely high” concentrations of lead in cinnamon-flavored applesauce pouches, prompting a massive recall and international investigation.

Where is this lead coming from? Why is it in our food? And should we stop, or reduce, the amount of cinnamon-flavored food we eat?

We spoke to experts about why heavy metals are sometimes discovered in spices and other foods. Here’s what they had to say.

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How does lead get into cinnamon?

Lead contamination can occur from the soil or the air during plant growth, but in some instances, cinnamon and other spice suppliers may intentionally add lead chromate to enhance the color or increase the weight of the product.

Cinnamon, which comes from the bark of a tree, can absorb “lower levels of lead” found in the soil where it’s grown through its roots or contact with the bark, Laura Shumow, the executive director of the American Spice Trade Association, said in an email. The trees take approximately 10 years to grow and that “provides a long timeline over which lead may be taken into the tree,” she said.

Nearby industrial activity, roadways and volcanic ash could all contribute to the amount of lead in the soil, Shumow said.

Cinnamon trees are cut to stumps, causing them to grow new shoots that are stripped and dried in the sun and those shoots curl into the characteristic brown shapes. The drying process “naturally concentrates elements like lead in the finished product,” Shumow said. The industry is actively researching ways to prevent or remove lead from cinnamon bark, but the studies will take years to complete, she said.

Jenna Forsyth, a research scientist at Stanford’s School of Medicine who has studied the intentional adulteration of spices, said even a “small sprinkle” of lead chromate “can result in several percent increase in weight.”

In the case of the cinnamon applesauce pouches, federal investigators have said the lead contamination was “likely an act of economically motivated adulteration.” Investigators detected up to 5,110 parts per million of lead in samples of cinnamon collected from the manufacturing facility in Ecuador. By comparison, the European Union limits lead in cinnamon to 2 parts per million.

In the case of the ground cinnamon, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned last week, investigators detected roughly 2 to 3 parts per million of lead. Francisco Diez-Gonzalez, a professor and the director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, said he believes that amount of lead suggests “an environmental, non-intentional contamination.”

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Why do we keep hearing about lead in cinnamon?

In the fall, federal and state health authorities warned of “extremely high” levels of lead detected in three brand names of cinnamon applesauce puree pouches, WanaBana, Schnucks and Weis. The ensuing investigation lead to the recall of nearly 3 million pouches.

The contaminated applesauce puree has been linked to 499 confirmed, probable and suspected cases of lead exposure in 44 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The investigation has resulted in a broad review of the cinnamon imported to the United States, Diez-Gonzalez said.

“What you’re seeing now is actions from the FDA, trying to enhance their surveillance,” he said.

Forsyth said UNICEF and similar organizations have been advocating for more stringent removal of lead from the food supply. “We basically want as little lead as possible, especially for children, when their brains are rapidly developing,” Forsyth said.

Prolonged exposures to high levels of lead at a young age can stunt growth, delay puberty and lead to lower IQ levels or learning disabilities, experts say. Concerning levels of lead have also been found in chocolate, turmeric and other spices.

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What do we know about lead in baby and toddler foods?

Congressional reports in 2021 found that many popular food products made for babies and toddlers contain significant levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury. Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a children’s health advocacy group, tested more than 150 baby and toddler foods and found that 95 percent had detectable levels of heavy metals, according to a report published in 2019.

Jack Caravanos, a clinical professor of environmental public health sciences in global and environmental health at New York University who studies lead exposure, said even 5 parts per million of lead, if consumed regularly, could lead to “pretty serious” health effects for young children.

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Should I stop or reduce my baking or cooking with cinnamon?

Caravanos said that even if adults occasionally are exposed to lead in a ground spice, they are at low risk for health problems. “We’re not going to be picking up any of the lead, and our brains are fully formed,” Caravanos said.

Parents of young children can still bake or cook with cinnamon, but young children should eat a varied diet to minimize risk. Foods rich in calcium and iron can limit the absorption of lead, said Katarzyna Kordas, an associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health at University of Buffalo.

There isn’t an at-home test for people to monitor whether their cinnamon, spices or other foods have lead, said Kordas. If you’d like to reduce your household’s risk of exposure, Kordas said, you could eat less or refrain from having cinnamon-flavored food or beverages on an empty stomach. “Lead is more readily absorbed on an empty stomach,” she said.

“If it was me and I baked every week and I baked with cinnamon every week, then I would probably consider: ‘Well, do I need to bake with cinnamon every week?’” Kordas said.

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How can I lower my risk of buying lead-tainted cinnamon?

Experts recommend sticking with name-brand spices that have established suppliers and quality control measures. “Name brand products seem to always have a higher quality control at the source,” Caravanos said.

Lori Robinson, the chief communications officer for McCormick & Company, said in a statement that the company’s suppliers “adhere to strict safety protocols.”

“We procure whole cinnamon bark and cinnamon bark pieces, rather than previously ground product, which better enables us to control for adulteration and contaminants,” Robinson said.

Ravin Donald, the executive vice president of operations for Frontier Co-op, a U.S. spice company based in Norway, Iowa, that also sells the brands Simply Organic and Aura Cacia, said in a statement that they have “a robust heavy metal testing program” that adheres to the New York regulatory standards for lead in spices, “as there is no prescribed federal limit.” The New York standard for lead in spices is 1 part per million.

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What about buying spices on vacation?

Forsyth said she cautions consumers against people buying loose spices while they’re traveling abroad.

“There’s this kind of romanticism of going to the bazaar and buying from these loose burlap sacks in the market,” Forsyth said. “Unfortunately, that’s where the problem is with all types of adulteration.”

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What else can I do to lower risk of lead exposure in children?

In addition to feeding a varied diet, make sure children wash their hands before eating to wash off lead or other contaminants they may have picked up. “Hands are a conduit for contaminants,” Kordas said. “Cleaning hands is just as important as what’s in the food.”



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