According to the report, spice producers in Bangladesh have been adding industrial lead chromate pigment to turmeric, posing a serious threat to the nation's public health. 

By Betty Gold
September 30, 2019
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Often valued as an anti-inflammatory superhero, turmeric has reigned supreme as the trendiest superfood spice in America for quite some time. Indeed, the wellness industry’s obsession with the potent yellow-orange powder is evident when one walks into any supplement store, cold-pressed juicery, or tea shop touting golden lattes.

Historically used in Eastern herbal remedies, turmeric has been praised for its potential to reduce symptoms of arthritis, prevent Alzheimer’s and cancer, help with intestinal issues such as digestion and heartburn, boost our immune system, and more. These benefits are likely a result of curcumin, an antioxidant (and active ingredient) in turmeric.

Stanford University released a study this week showing that turmeric may also contain high quantities of lead, a dangerous neurotoxin.

The authors of the study have been researching why lead exposure among women and children in Bangladesh has been dangerously high since 2014. They discovered that a significant cause of the problem is turmeric, the nation’s most popular spice. Reportedly, many spice producers in Bangladesh have been adding industrial lead chromate pigment to brighten and intensify turmeric’s mustard yellow color—the brighter hue makes it more a more aesthetically appealing ingredient when added to stews, curries, and other traditional dishes. It also makes it easier for turmeric processors to remove the skin from the root, which means less of the product gets wasted.

It took quite some time for the researchers to discover the significant impact turmeric was having on the high blood levels of lead and chromium found in the population of Bangladesh. "We went into this thinking that perhaps there's sources of lead in the environment. Maybe it's the soil or the water. Maybe from lead soldered pipes," says Jenna Forsyth, a postdoctoral student at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences and a lead author of the study. "When you see that it's actually lead that's being added to the food. It's added directly to something that's being consumed. That was just shocking."

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated that no level of lead exposure has been deemed safe for children, as it increases the risk of brain and heart disease in adults and interferes with children’s brain development.

The limit for lead in Bangladesh for anyone is five micrograms per deciliter of blood, and the authors of the Stanford study discovered concentrations that exceeded this cap up to 500 times in seven of the nine districts that produce turmeric. They also had previously found that over 30 percent of pregnant women in Bangladesh had dangerously high levels of lead in their blood. And one study from Bangladesh’s rural Munshiganj district found that 78 percent of kids between the ages of 20 to 40 months had high blood lead levels, too.

Today, there is no evidence that adulterated turmeric has affected consumers outside of Bangladesh. That being said, it's important to remember that we share a global food supply. India produces over 80 percent of the world’s supply of turmeric; Bangladesh is fifth. Since 2011, 13 brands of turmeric (and curry powder, in which turmeric is a key ingredient) have been recalled across the globe due to containing an excess of lead.

Much of the Bangladeshi population consumes turmeric daily—it’s a ubiquitous spice across the nation. "We recommend immediate intervention that engages turmeric producers and consumers to address this public health crisis and ensure a future with [lead]-free turmeric," state the authors in their report. Forsyth and her team are also urging that import inspectors across the globe screen turmeric with X-ray devices that can detect lead and other chemicals.

The good news is that in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been aware of the threat of lead toxicity in turmeric for quite some time. Therefore, according to the Stanford report, it’s likely they’ve already been amping up their inspection and regulation of the spice that gets imported in recent years.

“The risk is greatest if your turmeric is older,” Forsyth says. “If you have old turmeric, consider replacing it with one of the most mainstream brands.”

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