Dear Colleen, How Do I Avoid Lead in Food?

An integral part of our process in sourcing and creating ZEGO products is ensuring they are as pure
as possible, not just from allergens and gluten but also potential toxic residue cause health problems, like pesticides, chemicals, and heavy metals. Lead is not considered a “potential toxin.” All scientists agree lead is toxic to our bodies and particularly damaging to our children. In ten minutes, I’ll tell you about it and help you be an empowered consumer. Hint: You may want to find an alternative to your chocolate pea protein shake.



What is lead? Lead is a high density metal that is part of the makeup of our planet. Lead binds to proteins in your body, allowing it to easily move across your body’s membranes and cause mild to very serious health problems and permanent cognitive impairment. Yes, avoiding lead is not only smart, it helps you stay smart.


Why is it a problem? Acute lead poisoning can cause severe gut pain, vomiting, and seizures. You might get this from using a “traditional” folk remedy that is high in lead, like bint al dahab used to treat constipation in Oman. Any level of exposure can cause cognitive impairment, dementia, joint pain, high blood pressure, hallucinations, urinary tract infections, hair loss, exhaustion, anemia, and reduced IQ. Eliminating exposure will lower blood levels but will not address lead stored in other areas of your body. For example, it can be stored in your bones for up to 30 years and at any point during that time could be released and travel to your brain. Interestingly, two people with the same lead toxicity levels can have very different severity and types of symptoms. Scientists do not know exactly why.

  • The CDC recommends taking action to limit children’s exposure if their blood level is above 5ug/DL.
  • Though no lead levels are considered safe, the CDC does not consider adult blood levels of 10ug/DL or less “elevated.”
  • Acute exposure is likely to cause neuropsychiatric symptoms (vomiting, brain swelling, seizures) while chronic exposure, even at very low levels, will accumulate in the body and cause symptoms like gastrointestinal distress, depression, nausea, and fatigue.

Lead is very difficult to pull lead out of the body, though chelation therapy has been used help those with acute lead poisoning.


Who is at risk? All of us need to try to avoid lead exposure, but exposure for children is most dangerous, as the long-term health effects and near-term impact on the brain (which can be seen in lowered IQs) may be irreversible. Children’s tissues are softer than adults, making it easier for lead to travel in their body.


Exposure is generally more common in lower income neighborhoods and in places where lead gasoline accumulated, like soil near highways or in and around auto repair garages. Those living in homes built before 1978 are likely to have lead paint that can chip and create lead dust. Sanding and construction on old houses can send lead into the air and surrounding soil. Boys are more vulnerable to lead’s damage to the brain than girls, and scientists believe estrogen and estradiol may convey some protection against the damage lead causes.


Infographic from The

Where is lead found in food? Lead is found in many foods but often at low levels that your body can handle with the help of other nutrients in the food, like calcium, iron and vitamin C. High lead levels have been found in crops like chocolate, peas, cannabis (sorry), sweet potatoes, and mustard greens. That means it can wind up in products like baby food, protein shakes, and meat substitutes with these ingredients.


When does it get in food? Natural phenomena like volcanic eruptions and the use of lead for thousands of years in everything from makeup to medicine to water pipes and fuel has elevated its presence in soil in many regions in the world.

Chocolate grown near historic volcano activity in Latin America may have high lead levels from the volcanic ash in the soil. Lead also gets into anything cooked in contaminated water (just as the families in Flint, MI who had to cook with bottled water for years).

Crops like peas (pea protein is showing up everywhere in food), cannabis, and mustard greens will pull in lead from soil and water and capture it in the plants’ molecules. Plants like these that pull lead and other toxins into their molecules are called phytoremediators. They actually can be used to clean toxins out of soil. If a crop is used as a photoremediator, it must be treated like toxic waste. However, if a farmer does not know their soil has high lead levels, these crops can pass on the lead to consumers.


How can you avoid it or fix it?

Lead is hard to get rid of from your body, so it’s best to avoid it. Chelation therapy is an option for acute poisoning but there are side effects. Eating organic food is good for your body for many reasons, but it won’t help decrease your lead exposure because organic standards do not address metals.

Certain foods help you not take in lead or rid it from your body, like tomatoes, berries, onions, garlic and grapes as well as cilantro, lemon, probiotics, green tea, chlorella, spirulina, wild blueberries, and curry spices. The nutrients in these foods act as “natural antagonists” to lead.

As for your favorite brands and the things you eat the most, consider taking these actions to protect yourself and assert your right to know what is in your food.

  • Ask your favorite food companies to share their lead testing with you or to tell you if they are “California Prop 65compliant.” Prop 65 is a set of standards for hundreds of chemical toxins and it has an extremely low lead standard. Some companies feel it is highly unreasonable to expect food to meet the Prop 65 limit. They often won’t test for lead because they are worried their food will violate Prop 65. If they do test, they often won’t share their results.
  • Only buy chocolate or pea protein products 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 chocolate and The Clean Label Project for protein powder.
  • Never buy off market cannabis or cigarette products because they are more likely to have elevated lead levels. Legal cannabis products sold in California, for example, have strict purity standards and will have a purity panel on them showing they are below the state’s strict lead limits.
  • Don’t drink more than a bottle of imported wine a day to limit your lead exposure, and because it’s really not a habit of highly successful people.


How Does ZEGO Control for Lead? We require lead testing of any ingredients we buy that are at risk for elevated lead contamination. If the farmer does not have the testing, we send a sample to a 3rd party lab for testing. To be cleared for ZEGO, the sample must have no measureable lead or a level under the Prop 65 threshold (based on serving size). You can see our results for our protein powder, cereal, and chocolate on our Food Safety section of our website or by scanning the QR code on any of those products’ packages.


What Can You Do to Help?

We’re pushing for greater transparency in the food and beverage industry, encouraging other companies test for toxins like lead and publish their results like ZEGO does. Companies will start to do this if they hear from enough consumers. After all, nothing is a more powerful motivator to companies than consumer demand—think of how quickly companies got rid of trans fats and how quickly the gluten-free and nut milk industries grew. Together, we will bring about healthier soil, farmers, and people and 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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