‘Unsafe’ levels of lead found in imported Mexican hot sauces

If you are looking for hot sauce with a little something extra, you might want to be careful.

A University of Nevada, Las Vegas pilot study has found low levels of lead in four hot sauces imported from Mexico and available in Clark County.

“The levels were low, but any lead is lead,” said Shawn Gerstenberger, one of the researchers and interim dean of the School of Community Health Sciences at UNLV.

Lead poisoning can lead to neurological problems, especially in children 6 and under because their brain is still developing. Children are the most vulnerable population, researchers said.

The UNLV findings were published earlier this year in the Journal of Environmental Science and Health. Researchers tested 25 bottles of hot sauce imported from Mexico and South America after purchasing them at five ethnic markets, two grocery stores and one swap meet in Clark County.

The four lead-laced brands had concentrations exceeding the U.S. Food and Drug Administration standard for unsafe levels of lead in candy, Gerstenberger said. Researchers used the candy comparison because hot sauce doesn’t fall into any food category with a U.S. standard for unsafe lead levels. Gerstenberger said the UNLV research paper suggests that lead safety levels for hot sauces be determined and implemented.

The hot sauce brands with lead concentrations exceeding the U.S. Food and Drug Administration candy standard were Salsa Picante de Chile Habanero, El Pato Salsa Picante, Salsa Habanera and Bufalo Salsa Clasica.

No American hot sauces were tested as part of the UNLV research. Hot sauces imported from Mexico and South America were studied because of an earlier problem with lead in some spicy candies from Latin America. Some of the ingredients in those candies and in hot sauces are similar, Gerstenberger said.

In 2006, work by the same researchers and the Southern Nevada Health District led to the removal of several candies with excessive lead levels at more than 1,000 stores throughout Southern Nevada, Gerstenberger said.

That research, in fact, eventually led to the hot sauce study.

UNLV researcher Jennifer Berger Ritchie recalled shopping for candy for the earlier study: “Right next to the candy, there was hot sauce.”

The main sources of lead in the hot sauces were spicy peppers and salt, Gerstenberger said. The peppers usually get the lead from the soil, but it can be eliminated “simply by washing them,” he said.

UNLV researchers believe that their study is the first of hot sauce lead concentration levels.

Megan Downs, spokeswoman at UNLV, said researchers haven’t shared their findings with the hot sauce manufacturers or importers since there is no set standard for lead concentrations on hot sauces.

“It’s an informational study at this point,” she said.

Researchers do hope their study will spur efforts similar to those taken to reduce lead levels in candy. They hope that manufacturers will adopt better practices, Ritchie said, and that a standard for unsafe lead levels in hot sauce will be implemented.

For now, however, Ritchie isn’t expecting any quick action by manufacturers.

“Since there’s no standard (for hot sauces), I don’t think they’ll start pulling them,” she said.

And the researchers’ best advice for consumers?

Moderation, said Gerstenberger: “Hot sauce is fine, but you don’t have to put it in every meal.”

Contact Reporter Yesenia Amaro at yamaro@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0440.

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