How to Avoid Lead in Food? (Part 2 of a 2-part series)
Lead in food is no joke. But you can protect yourself by choosing clean brands and eating specific “helper” foods high in vitamin C, iron, magnesium, selenium, and calcium that actually prevent lead from making a home in your body.
To read more about how lead damages your health, see Part 1 of this blog series.
What foods have a higher lead contamination risk?
Not all products claiming to be “good for you” actually are. In fact, some can be toxic to your health because they have high lead residue. Chronic exposure to lead can have severe health effects. And though lead can be in virtually any food, numerous reports have revealed that certain crops have a greater risk of having high lead levels.
So, pay attention special attention if you eat these foods:
- Dark chocolate (especially cocoa powder),
- powdered greens,
- sweet potatoes,
- protein smoothies,
- pea protein,
- fruit juice,
- baby food,
- meat substitutes, and
Lead exposure and lead poisoning are serious public health issues. The FDA has a task force working to reduce heavy metal exposure to children called “Closer to Zero.” It published its action plan in 2022 and meetings and comment periods are ongoing.
The good news is that heavy metal exposure for young children has declined dramatically since the 1980s due to measures such as banning leaded gasoline and household paint. But the FDA recognizes that no exposure level is safe, and this task force is working to reduce levels further.
To read more about how lead damages your health, see part 1 of this blog series.
When did your lead exposure start? In the womb.
You’ve likely seen the reports about arsenic in baby food products and lead in baby food (more on arsenic in a future blog). But the threat of lead exposure for the baby starts much earlier. In fact, it starts with the mom’s early exposure to lead during HER childhood through the food she ate and the home and environment in which she lived.
The lead you accumulate from various exposures is stored in your bones for up to 30 years. It waits for just the right moment to release and travel around your body.
During pregnancy specifically, a woman’s body will release lead that has been stored in her bones which the fetus then absorbs. In fact, being pregnant is the most significant event that will pull lead toxicity out of a female’s body.
It’s a terrible lesson, showing that what we eat and how we live can affect future generations. And, it starts before we are even old enough to understand what that means.
How does lead get into food?
Food that is contaminated by high levels of lead typically occurs due to human activity. We have mined and used lead for thousands of years in things such as,
- house paints,
- painted wood toys,
- medicine, and
- water pipes (e.g., Flint, MI).
And the mining run-off from their production contaminates the soil to this day.
TIP: use your old pottery and china for display only to avoid lead leaching into your food.
Further, gasoline companies used lead for decades in fuel, and it is still allowed in some countries. And even though the United States government banned leaded gasoline in 1996, the runoff still contaminates some farmland areas.
Farmland nearby historically active volcanos may have high lead levels from the volcanic ash in the soil. High levels of heavy metals can wind up in your chocolate or protein powder or wine.
Some foods, like the seaweed, used to make carrageenan, grow in environments known to be high in heavy metals. In fact, an FDA report found that some brands had extremely high levels of lead, arsenic, and cadmium. And though this ingredient is used in small amounts in food and beverages as an emulsifier, it is used prolifically in products. Consumers need to be careful about the number of products they consume each day with carrageenan.
Why is there more lead in pea protein and other foods?
The crops listed above, like peas (you see pea protein everywhere in food these days), cannabis, and mustard greens, will pull in lead from soil and water and capture it in the plants’ molecules. They are part of a group of plants called phytoremediators.
These crops can be used to clean toxins out of the soil naturally. But if a crop is used for phytoremediation, it must be treated as toxic waste. What’s more, pea protein powder can become contaminated during processing (as many foods can be), particularly those processed in China.
Shockingly, farmers don’t necessarily test their soil for lead or any heavy metals. So, if their soil is high in lead, they may be unknowingly passing on that toxicity to you. If you consume crops like sweet potatoes, cannabis, chocolate, mustard greens, and pea protein, in particular, you need to find brands you trust that have been screened for heavy metals.
Calculating Lead Exposure under Prop 65
California’s Prop 65 has the lowest and strictest standard for lead in food. Its limit is 15 parts per billion (PPB) per day.
To be sure, Prop 65 is complicated because it looks at an entire day and considers the weight of the person. For easy at-home evaluation, you can use this formula for an average adult. Just keep in mind that 15PPB/day is considered a very low amount of lead exposure but also that you will be exposed to lead through other food, beverages, soil, and air during the day as well.
exposure in PPB (ug/day) = grams consumed X test result for sample in PPM (ug/g)Source of equation: AGQ Labs
If you consume 2 servings of protein powder a day and a serving is 30 grams and the lead result is .05PPM, your exposure is calculated this way.
= (2 servings X 30 grams) X (.05 PPM)
Note that the total exposure is well under the 15PPB/day limit of Prop 65.
Of course, you’ll be exposed to other sources of lead as well. For example, if you mix your protein with powdered greens and chocolate, likely your blood lead level will climb because those ingredients can have heavy metals in them as well. In addition, you may add fruit juice, which has historically had a problem with lead contamination.
Compared to food and drinks, airborne lead is much more lethal. The limit under Prop 65 for airborne lead is 0.5PPB. That’s why lead-based household paint and leaded gasoline were banned in the U.S.
So keep in mind that you want to minimize problem ingredients and products. If you do that, and you don’t work around manufacturing that creates airborne lead or use leaded plates, etc, you may not need to worry.
Are there foods that help you detox from lead?
You may be eating organic food to benefit your body and the earth. But unfortunately, it won’t help lessen your lead exposure. That’s because organic standards do not address toxic heavy metals like lead. Moreover, there likely is some tiny amount of lead in almost everything we consume.
Luckily, you can protect yourself by eating certain foods to help your body reject the naturally occurring lead you are exposed to. The nutrients in these foods act as “natural antagonists” to lead and include:
How Do You Know if There Is Too Much Lead in Your Food?
- wild blueberries, and
- brown seaweed (Atlantic dulse)
- barley grass
- green tea,
- spirulina, and
- curry spices.
How can you make sure your food isn’t a lead risk?
We all have favorite brands of certain products in our kitchens. Consider taking these actions to protect yourself and assert your right to know what is in your food.
- PICK THE RIGHT FOODS FOR LITTLE ONES. Stay away from baby food with sweet potatoes and toddler snacks with pea protein.
- AVOID CERTAIN VEGAN SUBSTITUTES. Many meat and dairy substitutes have a significant amount of pea protein. And if the company can’t assure you they test for lead and have strict standards for it, steer clear.
- Buy safe chocolate or pea protein products. Ask if the company will share their lead results or you can’t find tests on them by 3rd parties, especially if they are a regular part of your diet. There are a number of reports to choose from like As You Sow for heavy metals in chocolate. But unfortunately, a previous, comprehensive report on over 130 by The Clean Label Project has been taken off the internet. (ZEGO Plant Protein is Prop 65 compliant, with our most recent tests showing no measurable amount of lead.)
- never use off-market cannabis or cigarette products. They are more likely to have elevated lead levels. If you want to indulge, know that legal cannabis products sold in California, for example, have to meet strict purity standards and will have a purity panel on them showing they are below the state’s strict lead limits. Even still, we hear from people in the industry that these reports may not be reliable.
- LIMIT IMPORTED RED WINE AND VINEGAR. Don’t drink more than a bottle of imported red a day to limit your lead exposure, and because it’s really not a habit of highly successful people. Take special care with balsamic vinegar as well, as the lead can be further concentrated there (though you consume much less of it than wine).
- Ask your favorite food companies if they have purity standards for lead. And ask them to share their lead testing with you or to tell you if they are “California Prop 65 compliant.” Stick with the ones that will share their test data or ones that 3rd parties have tested (see bullet #3).
How Does ZEGO Control for Lead?
At ZEGO, we require lead testing of all ingredients we source that are at risk for elevated lead contamination. If the farmer or supplier doesn’t have access to validated third-party testing, we send a sample to our own third-party lab. ZEGO requires that the food sample results show no measurable lead, or at least a level below the Prop 65 threshold based on serving size (<0.5PPB).
You can see our results for our protein powder, oats, muesli, and chocolate on our Food Safety section of our website or by scanning the QR code on any of those products’ packages. All of our products meet our purity standards. Some of our products have no detectable lead levels and others have trace amounts under the CA Prop 65 Limits.
What Can You Do to Advocate for Cleaner Food?
ZEGO is pushing for greater transparency in the food and beverage industry, encouraging other companies to test for toxins, like lead, and publish their results as we do. But your opinion is far more important than ours.
You see, companies will start to verify their products’ purity if enough consumers refuse to buy them without verification. After all, nothing is a more powerful motivator to companies than consumer demand—think of how quickly companies got rid of trans fats and the rapid growth of the gluten-free and nut milk industries. Those changes came about because consumers wanted changes.
It’s time to combat lead in our food products and in other everyday items we consume. Together, we will bring about honest farmers, healthier soil, cleaner products, and safer people. And with that, we will help regenerate our planet.
Colleen Kavanagh is the founder and CEO of ZEGO. ZEGO is the first purity-transparent food company, making superfood products with traceable transparency designed to be safe for most all people to eat regardless of dietary restrictions like common allergies, intolerances, or diabetes.
ZEGO makes oats, muesli, protein powder, Mix-ins, and nutrition bars. All products are gluten free, peanut free, tree nut free, dairy free, soy free, sesame free, glyphosate free, lupin free, and sulfite free. ZEGO is certified as a B Corp and as Women Owned (WBENC).
San Francisco, CA
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