Next time you reach for a bottle of hot sauce, consider this: you may be getting a little lead in addition to that spicy kick. After analyzing 25 bottles of hot sauce manufactured in Mexico and South America, researchers from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) found lead amidst the chili peppers and salt.
“[Lead] is a stunningly toxic metal—even the tiniest amount can cause problems,” says Caroline Cox, research director at the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, Calif.
Not Just Habanero
Using plasma mass spectrometry and X-ray fluorescence technology, researchers from UNLV identified four brands of hot sauces out of 25 that contained more than the FDA sanctioned 0.1 parts per million of lead in candies.
Researchers chose this threshold in order to be overly cautious and because they had previously examined the lead content of imported candies, says study author Shawn Gerstenberger, Ph.D., the interim dean of the School of Community Health Sciences at UNLV.
The offending hot sauces—Salsa Picante de Chile Habanero, El Pato, Salsa Picante hot sauce, Salsa Habanera, and Búfalo Salsa Clasica—were all imported from Mexico.
How does lead get into hot sauce and candies? It's most likely due to improper production practices, such as not washing the peppers, using salts that are contaminated with lead, and exposing ingredients to leaded gasoline, Cox says.
The ideal next step would be to identify sources of lead in the production process. “It’s easier to look at and evaluate the process and ingredients for the right sort of intervention that reduces lead,” Gerstenberger says.
Who’s at Risk?
For adults, health problems from cancer to heart failure have been associated with lead exposure, says Cox. However, children and pregnant mothers are the most at-risk groups.
“Lead has very significant effects on the developing brain,” Cox says. “There are a few things about kids that make them more likely to have lead exposure. They’re crawling around, putting their hands in their mouth, etc.” For fetuses, a mother’s consumption of lead can impact development. Even past lead consumption can affect a developing fetus because lead can be stored in a mother’s bones and leech out during pregnancy.
“There is no amount of lead that we want in kids," Gerstenberger says. "There’s no reason, and there is no way to justify it.”
Giving up hot sauce may not be as much of a trial for children and pregnant women as, say, giving up candy. While lead in imported chili candies was a concern for UNLV researchers, hot sauce has a different set of risks. “Children don’t eat hot sauce like they eat candy. My guess is that when you get a little bit older is when you start liking hot sauce," Cox says.
How to Avoid Lead in Hot Sauces
This doesn’t mean your breakfast burritos have to go without hot sauce. There are strict production standards in the United States to control for lead, and while a study on American-made hot sauces is needed, to avoid a dash of lead with your spicy kick, choose hot sauces made in the United States. Try: Crystal Hot Sauce, Tabasco, Sriracha, and Tapatío.
Already, federal regulators and some of the hot sauce manufacturers mentioned in the study have contacted the study authors to see what steps can be taken to reduce lead in imported foods. “It’s good to see that they’re being responsible and are willing to do what they need to. The end result is less lead in food products, which is what everybody wants,” Gerstenberger says.