A new study out of Stanford University has revealed that some spice producers in Bangladesh have been lacing their turmeric products with a chemical that contains lead, a dangerous neurotoxin that can cause debilitating life-long diseases and disorders in people who consume it. The chemical is an industrial yellow pigment called lead chromate that is added to give the turmeric a desirable yellow color.
Lead is an incredibly dangerous neurotoxin — no amount of it is considered safe for ingestion, leading to its ban in paint in many places, as well as restrictions on its presence in certain types of products. For this reason, lead chromate pigment has been banned from use in food products for many years.
According to the new study, however, a flood in Bangladesh in the 1980s resulted in turmeric crops that had a duller color than usual. Processors, in an effort to ensure the product sold, added the industrial pigment to the dull turmeric in order to make it brighter. The process was successful and, according to the study, became a standard practice that remains today.
The laced turmeric is believed to be the cause of elevated blood lead levels in Bangladesh, though the impact outside of the nation is unclear. The researchers note that products intended for export to other countries may not be as adulterated due to random food safety checks that test the products.
However, only a fraction of products are ultimately tested; it’s possible that only a small portion of turmeric with this yellow pigment is caught, leaving the rest to enter the market and compromise the health of the people who purchase it. Consumers may also face risk if they directly purchase turmeric sourced from Bangladesh using sources that bypass the usual food safety checks.