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The grim story of lead contamination in spices

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

*A study conducted in 2020 by Unicef and the NGO Pure Earth documented childhood lead poisoning. “In data gathered over 15 years, we’ve found that India is the most affected,” says Richard Fuller, founder of Pure Earth. And the problem often comes from an unexpected source – Indian spices and curry powders.

Dr Ipsita Mazumdar is a professor of biochemistry at Kolkata’s KPC Medical College and Hospital and has been studying the effects of lead poisoning from food powders since 2014.

Over a three-month period, Mazumdar tested some of the country’s most popular spices – chilli, cumin, curry powder, garam masala and chat masala. She tested 52 samples of turmeric, assessing branded and packaged varieties, as well as loose powders sold by street vendors in Kolkata. She found lead in all of them.

She tested 52 samples of turmeric, assessing branded and packaged varieties, as well as loose powders, she found lead in all of them.

The cause, she found, was food colouring contaminated with compounds of lead. Lead chromate was added to the turmeric to brighten its golden colour and lead oxide gave the chilli powders a rich red hue. The other spices tested, including curry powders, garam and chat masalas, had small amounts of lead, but not at such high levels as the turmeric and chilli. The ill effects of lead exposure build up over time and that these spices are used in households every day and across India.

Lead chromate was added to the turmeric to brighten its golden colour and lead oxide gave the chilli powders a rich red hue.
Spice Jars

Now this is where the problem begins. We’re so used to thinking of spices as tiny jars of powder sitting on the shelf and not something that comes from a plant grown by a farmer. Freshness, origin, process of cultivation is not something that people usually consider when buying spices. As consumers we are totally disconnected from the supply chain, partly because we never question but majorly because the spice trade has been this way always. We don’t know where our spices come from, who’s growing them and the farmers growing them don’t know how they are being sold once picked up from their farm or the spice mandis more commonly.

Freshness, origin, process of cultivation is not something that people usually consider when buying spices.

When we received our sample of Lakadong Turmeric from our farmer in Meghalaya the first thing we did was get it tested for lead (and curcumin ofcourse). Even though we knew that our partner farmer had been practicing sustainable farming for years we wanted to double check, be a 100% sure and rule out even an ounce of doubt….the result obviously turned out negative.


Most of the spices are graded based on their color and size rather than flavor. Little or no consideration is given to the technique used for growing the spices which is immensely discouraging for those employing natural farming methodologies. Although bigger size or darker color does not necessarily mean better tasting. Larger peppercorns, for example, are priced higher while a spice like coriander is valued for color which only means that it’s harvested while it's still unripe. This is indeed just a very wrong parameter to grade a spice. We’ve tasted cardamom that looked “not fit” for a commodity market but we kid you not it was the best cardamom we’d ever had.

All our partner farmers use organic methods of growing crops that they have championed over years of rigorous self practice. Right from preserving seeds to making their own natural herbicides consisting of mineral sources, compost, biosolids, kitchen waste and so much more, they’re masters of natural farming. Now the problem is when they go to the regular commodity market to sell their produce they’re dismissed for being frivolous forcing them to either sell their produce at the regular market price or go back home with an unsold harvest and no cash in hand. Organic spices in India is still a far fetched dream.

All our partner farmers use organic methods of growing crops that they have championed over years of rigorous self practice.

Our spices defy the usual commodity market norms. You may find our cardamom looking not so perfect or our black pepper slightly small in size but the evident nuances in flavour, aroma and potency are overwhelming. We’ve been told that our organic cardamom can be sniffed right through the bag, our turmeric is very, very potent. You see that’s the magic of unfiltered spices, grown with utmost care, precision and needless to say lots of love.

We’ve been told that our organic cardamom can be sniffed right through the bag, our turmeric is very, very potent.

We’re striving hard to make a tiny space for ourselves in this giant, truculent and ever evolving market with honest ingredients, max traceability and legit transparency. Thank you for being a part of our growing community. We are so so excited to serve you with lots more beautiful spices and ingredients.


In the meanwhile you can check out our shop here:

https://www.beunfiltered.in/shop


Naturally grown lead free Lakadong Turmeric here: Shop now



*Source: The Guardian. You can read the full report here: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/dec/24/dangerous-spices-why-indias-cooking-powders-pose-a-risk-of-lead-poisoning