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13 Common Foods We Eat That Could Easily Contain Lead

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, it is never safe to consume lead, even at the lowest levels. Exposure to heavy metals like lead has been linked to a whole host of problems, especially for young children. For starters, children who have been found to have lead in their blood are at higher risk for struggling with their behavior and may experience a drop in their IQ. As for adults who are exposed to lead, they could experience damage to their kidneys and be plagued with chronically high blood pressure, according to the World Health Organization. This global organization also warns pregnant women to be especially careful about lead, since it has been associated with miscarriage, stillbirth, and low birth weight.

Even though it is fairly well known that lead exposure is dangerous for health, contamination is typically associated with older toys and paints found in older homes. Unfortunately, this heavy metal can be found in unexpected places, like the foods we eat, and could be harming our health without our knowledge. Even foods deemed as healthy might be a source of lead exposure.

These 13 common foods we eat probably contain lead and most importantly, here’s how to avoid the consequences.

1. Home-Grown Vegetables

Soil could contaminate garden-fresh food.

Even though growing your own food is typically a smart choice for your health, it isn’t a practice that is without risks. Since vegetables and fruit can absorb lead from the soil they’re grown in, gardeners should be careful to have their plot tested before getting to work sowing seeds. Homes near railways and older homes have the highest risk for high levels of lead in the surrounding soil, but testing for contamination is an easy and cheap process that anyone with a green thumb should consider.

2. Baby Food

Parents want to give their children a strong start, but baby foods could be doing more harm than good.

In 2017, researchers discovered that lead was present in baby foods in much higher frequencies than other kinds of foods. Specifically, 20 percent of the baby food sampled in the study contained lead. Additionally, eight of the kinds of baby food tested contained lead in 40% of the samples. To avoid dangerous exposure to lead in children, the Environmental Defense Fund recommends contacting individual manufacturers to ask for documentation of lead testing.

3. Sweet Treats

Your child’s favorite candy shouldn’t be a source of lead contamination.

However, specific types of candies have been found to have unsafe heavy metal concentrations. Sweets specifically containing chili powder, tamarind, and salt mined outside the United States are the riskiest candies to eat. You should be especially careful with candies that are imported from countries that do not regulate food, since they may contain higher unregulated levels.

Lead is so common in candy that the FDA began regulating children’s favorite candies.

To guarantee that children and pregnant women aren’t at risk, the FDA performs testing on a wide range of samples and asks manufacturers to comply with a specific set of practices to keep their products safe. Individuals worried about lead in sweets should stick with foods that have FDA labeling, and may need to contact individual companies to find out if they’re testing their products.

4. Chocolate and Cocoa Powder

Researchers found that cocoa content and location influenced how much lead and cadmium were present in chocolate.

In 2015, the Washington Post highlighted concerns about the lead content of chocolate when a non-profit began asking companies to better label their products with warnings about heavy metal content. Although the content meets FDA requirements, the worry is that Americans consume so much chocolate that it accumulates over time. You don’t have to deny your sweet tooth, but can instead choose to purchase brands found to be free of lead and cadmium.

5. Fruit Juice

To avoid lead exposure, stick with water or purchase low-risk juices.

In 2019, Consumer Reports published their findings after testing 45 of the most commonly purchased fruit juices for heavy metals. They found that almost half of the juices they tested contained unsafe levels of cadmium, lead, mercury, and inorganic arsenic. But, what should parents do?

First, consider cutting back on fruit juice altogether since it is no longer considered to be a recommended part of the diets of young children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. After that, look for the juices Consumer Reports found to be safe, like 365 Everyday Value 100% Apple Juice from Whole Foods.

6. Organic Foods

Buying organic doesn’t offer complete protection from lead contamination.

Health-conscious parents may turn to organically grown foods, but that doesn’t mean that the foods they eat are risk-free. The truth is that heavy metal contamination is just as common in organic baby foods as in conventional products. Consumer Reports suggests that parents cut back on packaged foods to keep their children safe, and to make sure their kid’s food has been tested by the companies they’re buying from.

7. Protein Powders

Your post-workout fuel could be putting you at risk.

There’s nothing quite like an icy protein shake after hitting it hard at the gym, but you might want to think twice before relying on protein powders as a source of nutrition. According to Consumer Reports, protein made from plants like peas and hemp have the highest lead concentration, which includes big name brands like Vega and Garden of Life. Athletes might take offense to Consumer Reports’ advice, though, which is to stop worrying so much about protein intake since most American’s have more than enough in their diet.

8. Wild Game

Hunters should take precautions before consuming the meat of wild game.

When hunters use bullets containing lead to hunt wild game, like deer, they put themselves at risk for exposure to dangerous heavy metals. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has several tips for hunters to avoid consuming lead fragments, two of which are very practical: avoiding shots in the meatiest part of the animals, and choosing bullets based on the lowest risk of lead fragments.

9. Spices

Where we buy our food could impact our health.

In the United States, we have fairly tight regulations that make sure food gets tested before it is sold. While foods bought here aren’t totally risk-free, they come with much lower risk and we generally have access to information like lab documents from testing. This allows us to carefully monitor what we eat and what we feed our families for heavy metal contamination.

However, foods that are produced in unregulated countries could come with a high risk.

Specifically, spices were found to have higher than recommended lead levels 30 percent of the time. Many spices come from other countries, but being sold here in the states lowers risk because of regulation. The highest levels of lead were found in spices that were actually bought outside of the states.

10. Leafy Greens

Vegetables like lettuce and spinach seem to absorb more lead than other vegetables.

Lead is absorbed into the roots of vegetables. It makes sense, then, that plants like leafy greens might have more lead since the consumable portion is in direct contact with the soil. In 2013, Water, Air, Soil, & Pollution researchers found that lead specifically seemed to be worse when the above-ground portion of the vegetable was in direct contact with the soil, and suggested less soil contact as a means of controlling lead contamination.

11. Root Vegetables

Since lead is absorbed in the roots, produce like sweet potatoes and carrots are most likely to contain higher levels of lead.

In light of the research above, it isn’t surprising to learn that root vegetables can be a source of lead due to their direct contact with soil. It seems this risk is specifically associated with home gardens and untested soil, according to a lead contamination research study by the Soil Science Society of America. Another great argument for getting the soil tested before beginning a garden in a new space!

12. Balsamic Vinegar

Older research found that some balsamic contains unsafe levels of lead, but no further data has been collected.

It is unclear if balsamic vinegar is safe for consumption or not, since a San Francisco Gate story reported on high lead levels in 2009. This is because leaders in the industry insisted that the lead levels present in their products were in line with other kinds of foods. And since then, a 2011 study confirmed these claims. Researchers found that about half of balsamic vinegar had a lead content higher than what is legal in California and determined that manufacturing practices are largely to blame.

13. Water Supply

When the water system is contaminated, the water we drink might contain lead.

Alright, so water might not be food, but it is definitely something we consume in large quantities, and it is something humans cannot exist without. So, it really matters when the water we drink contains toxins and heavy metals. When there are lead pipes or fixtures in a home, the risk for lead consumption is especially high, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Take action to avoid unknowingly consuming large amounts of lead and putting your health at risk.

Older homes should always be assessed for risk of lead exposure, including the plumbing. Tap water can be tested for heavy metals with an inexpensive test that can be purchased at hardware stores or on Amazon. More detailed reports can be provided by labs approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, but these tests can be costly.

Protecting your health can feel overwhelming, but the right information can make navigating things like avoiding lead a little easier.

What steps are you taking to avoid heavy metals in your food and drinks?