For years now, the spice turmeric has been blessed with a growing popularity in the United States, where it has been given the exalting label of a “superfood”. This is attributed to its active ingredient, curcumin, which is said, according to different lab studies, to contain antioxidant, antiviral, and anticancer properties. In early August 2016, Time Magazine published an article titled “You Should Probably Be Eating More Turmeric. Here’s How”, which was written by nutritionist Cynthia Sass and covered different safe and simple ways for turmeric’s consumption, such as tea, smoothies, and general seasoning.
However, at the same time that this article was released, it was revealed that eight brands of turmeric contain an elevated lead content, making them incredibly hazardous for human consumption, especially for infants, young children, and pregnant women, as it can affect physical and mental development. Gel Spice, Inc., a New Jersey based importer and manufacturer of food service products, consumer and retail spices, seeds, bakery ingredients, and seasonings distributed all the recalled turmeric brands, which have been sold in different markets throughout the United States.
Before its celebrity introduction in the United States, turmeric had long remained an important ingredient in South Asian cuisine, where the ginger-like root serves as a main ingredient in curry, and has even been used as an anti-inflammatory compound in the past. In fact, the Gel Spice recall is not the first instance of a major lead contamination in turmeric. In 2013, it was discovered that turmeric powder by Bangladeshi brand PRAN also contained elevated lead levels as it was imported into the United States, leading to a recall.
It was strongly believed that the lead contamination with the PRAN event occurred during the manufacturing and distribution of the turmeric, and not from the soil where it was grown and harvested. This claim is supported by research on turmeric in Bangladesh. Similarly, the Gel Spice recall notice has indicated that the lead contamination did not occur at a factory, but instead the distribution companies are likely to blame.
Proper handling of turmeric is covered by the official turmeric standard, ISO 5562:1983 – Turmeric, whole or ground (powdered) – Specification. This document touches upon guidelines for the packing, marking, and specific storage conditions and considerations for the spice, such as protection from the sun, rain, and excessive heat and appropriate ventilation. However, it is worth noting that adherence to guidelines might not even have made a difference in the distribution of the recalled products, as some have theorized that distributors intentionally added lead to the PRAN turmeric to increase its weight.
Even though it can be frightening, this news should not put an end to the habitual efforts of avid turmeric consumers in ingesting the spice. These individuals, however, should avoid the contaminated brands until the recall has ended, and remain alert for similar events in the future.
However, it is also important to point out that there currently is not as much evidence in support of turmeric’s health benefits as some might claim. For example, the assertion that the primary ingredient of turmeric, curcumin, fights cancer by interfering with molecular pathways involved in cancer development could be true, but there is little sound evidence in support of it. As the American Cancer Society states, “studies in humans looking at the long-term effects of spices [like turmeric] on diseases such as cancer are lacking at this time.”
Despite this, as a main ingredient in curry, turmeric is an important part of many diets. In fact, its anti-inflammatory properties can provide at least some relief for many ailments, so, even though the spice is not as magical as television personalities like Dr. Oz have claimed, it is not without its benefits. Turmeric lovers should also remember to consume it only in relatively small amounts, since high doses have caused indigestion, nausea, vomiting, reflux, diarrhea, liver problems, and worsening of gallbladder disease.