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Researchers Find High Levels of Lead in Mexican Hot Sauces

OC Weekly: Here are the 5 Worst Culprits


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  1. Previously I had read about lead in hot Mexican candies. The blame in that case was on handling of guajillo chiles, either they picked up dust during transport to the mill, or picked it up in older mills during grinding.

    But most of this top 5 are habanero based.

    7 Replies
    1. re: paulj

      If El Yucateco is on the list, then I'm probably dead already. I eat that stuff nearly every day. I have four varieties in my kitchen right now.


      1. re: JonParker

        Yes, El Yucateco is the one that caught me dead in my tracks (so to speak). It's one of my favorites, especially the green one.

        While I was glad to read that Valentina doesn't have a problem, I would have liked to see results for Tapatio and Cholula.

          1. re: pinehurst

            Y yo tambien … green one gets in my scrambled eggs all the time. But what the hell, I'm 72 …

            1. re: Will Owen

              I use the red one on my scrambled eggs. Don't like the green color on them, Sam I Am.

              1. re: JonParker

                I prefer the red as well. Aside from the visual, I think the green El Yucateco is over the top hot. I have no issue with a small bowl of fresh habanero sauce with egg dishes in Mexico.

        1. re: JonParker

          I've been using El Yucateco for the last 35 years! I have it not just in the kitchen but in my desk at work. When I told the news to Mr. Rat, he just snorted and said, well, at least we know now why you're nuts.

      2. Gotta love Gustavo Arellano. What was originally "Researchers find elevated lead levels in some hot sauces imported from Mexico; urge enforceable screening standards" he renders as "Researchers Find High Levels of Lead in Mexican Hot Sauces; Here are the 5 Worst Culprits". One of which was actually below the 0.1 ppm standard referenced.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Soul Vole

          I just finished reading Gustavo's Taco USA book. Some overlap in subject with Planet Taco, but breezier in style.

          As for the headline in this lead article - that could also blamed on his editors. There are comments on that web site.

          1. re: paulj

            Do you also blame his editors for the fact that he included a sauce below the 0.1 ppm level?

        2. So basically the worst-offender hot sauce has 2.5 times the amount of lead that's allowable in candy. So as long as we eat only half as much habanero sauce as we do candy we're in in the safe zone?

          I feel like OC is making more of this than is warranted, particularly with sentences like "...the scientists didn't specify whether it's the red or green version of the sauce (and didn't even specify if it was El Yucateco to begin with)..."

          1. The NBC Los Angeles web page has pictures of the bottles of the four brands with high lead levels.


            I had 2 of the 4 bottles in my fridge. They just went in the trash.

            1. Link won't load for me, can someone list them for me?

              21 Replies
              1. re: youareabunny

                The brands of Hot Sauce from Mexico with high lead levels were:

                -El Pato - Salsa Picante

                -El Yucateco - Salsa Picante de Chile Habanero

                -Castillo - Salsa Habanera

                -Bufalo - Salsa Clasica

                -Caribbean - Salsa Picante de Chile Habanero

                1. re: Antilope

                  25 hot sauces were tested. Four tested higher than the standard that has been set for candy. Four, not five. The El Yucateco Caribbean habanero salsa actually tested *below* the 0.1 ppm level, but that didn't stop Gustavo Arellano from including it.

                  The 0.1 ppm level was, it seems to me, rather arbitrarily chosen by the researchers, because it's been established as a standard for candy. But hot sauce is not candy and generally not consumed in the same quantities. One wouldn't expect a reasonable standard, when and should it ever be established for hot sauces, to be equivalent in terms of PPM. Drinking water for instance is consumed in much higher quantities than candy and thus is subject to much stricter standards. There exists no such standard for hot sauces, and 0.1 ppm is arguably quite biased and arbitrary.

                  1. re: Soul Vole

                    This is what UNLV found with one test. Since it's totally unregulated why would you expect those numbers to always be the case? They could be much lower sometimes and maybe much higher at other times. Without regular quality control, which seems to be lacking, who knows what you are ingesting?

                    1. re: Antilope

                      By what standard are you evaluating the results?

                      As I said, hot sauce is not candy. Candy is not drinking water.

                      The 0.1 ppm standard by which these hot sauces are being judged is basically BS. And still only 4 out of 25 didn't meet that standard. One of the ones you posted as failing actually passed.

                      1. re: Soul Vole

                        While I agree with you that the ppm may be arbitrary, so is any new standard of measurement. If there is no recommended ppm for hot sauce, you have to start somewhere, and that somewhere will be arbitrary. One refines from there.

                        For that matter, the standard given for "candy" is .1ppm. Are we talking about lemon drops or circus peanuts or 3 Musketeers bars?

                        It's one thing to find fault with the way the study has been presented via the OC (which we can say is shoddy, given how many times the author says "the study didn't say this but this is what we think they meant"). It's another to say the study itself is bad, given that we only have the OC's filter to judge it by. I think the article is sensational and hoopla, but we won't know about the study itself until it is publicly available.

                        And in the end it is one study, and it's rare that one study should result in a change in lifestyle.

                        1. re: ennuisans

                          I agree that there's a certain arbitrariness to such standards, but they should nonetheless be guided by objective considerations.

                          The standard for candy was originally 0.5 ppm, equivalent to the standard for sucrose. (By that standard all the hot sauces easily pass. The headline could be, "Study Finds Mexican Hot Sauces Low in Lead".) Later the FDA lowered it to 0.1 ppm on the grounds that children, considered more vulnerable to lead exposure, were more likely to consume candy, and because this was considered a practical maximum for manufacturers to achieve.

                          Applying the same standard to hot sauces ignores the context on which that standard was based, and is quite arbitrary.

                        2. re: Soul Vole

                          I eat more hot sauce than I do candy. Far more lol

                            1. re: Antilope

                              Sriracha is equally unregulated and hasn't been tested at all as far as I've been able to determine.

                              1. re: Soul Vole

                                If you're using the traditional rooster sauce made by Huy Fong Foods, it's made in the United States and is regulated by US food safety standards.

                                1. re: JonParker

                                  You're right, and I imagine the vast majority of Sriracha in the U.S. comes in a rooster bottle, so I retract my comment.

                                  Still I wonder why they limited themselves to Mexican salsas. Why not test a spectrum of imported salsas including imported Sriracha, sambals, harissa, etc.? Why not also test some domestic salsas for comparison? If this is about making importation policy changes, it would make a more informative and potentially compelling case (depending on the results) and reek less of bias.

                                  Or maybe playing into bias was the whole objective.

                                  1. re: Soul Vole

                                    "In this pilot study, 25 bottles of imported hot sauces from Mexico and South America were purchased from local ethnic markets, grocery stores, and a swap meet. Product selection included a variety of manufacturers and types, particularly those made in Mexico because of previous lead concerns."


                                    It's one thing to take the findings of one study, particularly an early one, and suggest possible improvements in future studies. But to accuse one small scale study of bias because it doesn't answer half a dozen questions in hindsight is unreasonable. That's just not how science works.

                                    1. re: ennuisans

                                      It's not an early study, not in intent. It's one calling for policy changes now.

                                      This statement makes my point: "The results indicate the need for more rigorous screening protocols for products imported in *Mexico*, including an applicable standard for hot sauce." (Emphasis added, and ignoring that "in" should be "from", possibly a misquote.)

                                      That's from Shawn Gerstenberger, study lead.


                                      Salsas from anywhere else in the world...? <crickets>

                                      Hence my accusation of bias, and never mind the arbitrary (as I've argued) 0.1 ppm standard being applied here.

                                      1. re: Soul Vole

                                        I just don't think your accusation of bias holds up. It's like saying that a study of the effects of smoking on cancer rates ignores the effects of drinking. A research project cannot allow for every possible variable, it studies the effects of one or two. It also makes no judgement on those not included in the study. It's entirely possible that US or Asian hot sauces had far more lead than the Mexican varieties, but that wasn't the focus of the study. Studying a particular variable with an eye towards advancing knowledge isn't "bias," it's science.

                                        1. re: JonParker

                                          If it's your intention to determine whether import policy should be changed then you look at the spectrum of imports. And for good measure and added credibility you compare to domestic production.

                                          That's how you do it if being objective and informative is your goal.

                                          You certainly don't focus, as in this case, on one country to the exclusion of the rest, including your own. And then pick an arbitrary standard by which to judge it. That's a prescription for misleading results (and sensational headlines).

                                          Should you go that route, you should be prepared for accusations of bias.

                                          1. re: Soul Vole

                                            Science is determining a repeatable result through experimentation. Causation, while important knowledge, is not the basis of science -- results are. Whether or not import standards should be changed is politics, not science. Science is doing the testing and reporting the results.

                                            The researchers did not, as far as I know (and we're all relying on media reports at this point) say that standards should be changed, but that they should be examined, which is a reasonable conclusion based on the reported data. A scientific report would not include opinions, although it might point out areas deserving of further study.

                                            You may be unhappy with the media reporting of the study, which is fine with me. But don't confuse being unhappy with reporting of the data with thinking the data is somehow flawed, because it doesn't seem to be, at least by what's generally public knowledge.

                                            1. re: JonParker

                                              You seem to be mistaking measurement, on which science is certainly based, and science itself.

                                              The frequency and outcome of a person's visits to the bathroom is data, measurement. Which may have significance. But simply recording and reporting those numbers is not science.

                                          2. re: JonParker

                                            Just to add, in response to yours and other comments, this isn't strictly speaking science. There is no experimentation here. There is nothing here about trying to determine cause and effect and making predictions. *There is no variable.* (Your cancer analogy doesn't hold up.)

                                            This is simply test results coupled with the authors' opinions.

                                            And my point is that what was put under test was -- oh, let's be generous and just call it "selective". And the standard by which the results were judged -- well, to anyone who thinks it wasn't arbitrary, I continue awaiting your refutation.

                                      2. re: Soul Vole

                                        "particularly those made in Mexico because of previous lead concerns" - most likely the claims that some Mexican candies are high in lead.

                                        If my memory is correct, the most likely culprit in the candy case(s) was mishandled dried chiles (particularly of the guajillo variety). So I was surprised to see a lot of habanero salsas in the list.

                                        1. re: paulj

                                          According to the abstract there was no significant correlation between pepper types and lead content:


                                          What's surprisingly absent from the other conversations is high lead content in the packaging--2000ppm in one instance--and how levels varied from batch to batch.

                                2. re: youareabunny

                                  As do I. And I think it's pretty safe to say that you and I are considerably more than two years old.

                      2. It would be much more helpful to the public if the complete study results were available. I'd like to know if the brands I use are close to the line.

                        I followed the link at OC Weekly and it leads to other links to the study itself....... but access is denied without a subscription by the publisher: "Journal of Environmental Science and Health, Part B: Pesticides, Food Contaminants, and Agricultural Wastes
                        Volume 48, Issue 7, 2013"

                        Workaround anyone???

                        1. This is something any bored undergrad student with access to a gas chromatographic is likely to do. And then revamp it for a graduate thesis.

                          This has slow news day all over it.

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                            Mocking of knowledge is always productive.

                            1. re: JonParker

                              I am mocking the lack of knowledge. I hope they had an epidemiologist on board when acquiring the samples.

                              And I speak with experience about bored students and chem labs.

                              Sorry, but whenever I see sound bites of science, pseudo- science, or unsupported common knowledge, it brings out the B.S. in me. :-)

                              1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                                I'm just pointing out, as I did below, that we can't judge the study or its methodology based on media reports. Since no one here is willing to shell out the bucks to read the actual study, judging it is a pretty useless exercise.

                          2. Doesn't move my needle. It's not as though we gulp the stuff down like Gatorade.

                            5 Replies
                            1. re: Veggo

                              Exactly. There have been endless studies on endless subjects that do these scary headlines. Lots were about such and such causing cancer in rats. They never mention that you can poke a rat and sometimes cause malignant tumors. They're that susceptible. And you'd probably have to soak your body in certain things before having a reaction. I think we use a good bit of various hot sauces but I'm guessing if we measured a 'dose' it would probably be in the half teaspoon range.

                              1. re: c oliver

                                This. The dose makes the poison. Water is toxic if consumed in sufficient quantity. (There was a story a while back about a woman who died after drinking too much water in a radio contest.)

                                As I mentioned in another comment, after high levels of lead were found in Mexican candies the FDA set the standard at 0.5 ppm. This is for candy, consumed in relatively large quantities by small children. Only later did they lower it to 0.1 ppm.

                                Unfortunately we don't have free access to the study but I haven't seen the slightest justification in any of the news stories for using 0.1 ppm as a standard for hot sauces, other than that's the current standard for candy.

                                1. re: Soul Vole

                                  I ate El Yucateco red with my scrambled eggs this morning. I'm not about to change my habits based on one study. On the other hand, I'm not going to dismiss it out of hand either. I don't know why these kinds of discussions always end up as binary arguements, but if you think it's totally safe or totally deadly you simply don't have enough evidence to decide. I'm not going to argue with people who decide to err on the side of caution.

                                  1. re: JonParker

                                    *I'M* certainly not arguing. But I'm also going to take into consideration how hysterical the media gets over things like this. I spent a good bit of my professional life in the scientific/medical fields and saw this over and over again.

                                    1. re: JonParker

                                      I suggest you read my comments more carefully. I've not dismissed the study out of hand nor have I said anything along the lines of "it's totally safe".

                                      ETA: I have no reason to question the numbers reported. What I challenge is the standard by which they're being judged. As I've said the justification given by the FDA for 0.1 ppm for candy is that children are more vulnerable to lead exposure than adults and eat relatively more candy. What would be a reasonable standard for hot sauces I don't know, but I'm pretty sure it would be considerably higher, possibly higher than the 0.5 ppm originally set for candy.

                                      Aw, but then we have a non-story here. <yawn>

                              2. I don't think we should give Gustavo Arellano a pass for the sensationalistic article and headline and blame it on the editors because Arellano is the editor of the OC Weekly.

                                And, as the editor, Arellano sets the tone that the rest of the editors below him and the writers at the Weekly. Its too bad because there used to be a chowhound poster who used to write good posts but his writing has really suffered since he joined the Weekly.

                                Unfortunatley, its clear that Arellano doesn't really value the importance of veracity or honesty at the Weekly.Whenever, a reader points out a mistake in the Weekly, Arellano will rip the reader as a loser for even notcing the mistake.

                                And, Arellano has said that he doesn't care about accuracy in the Weekly- he's more concerned about controversy and the clicks that it generates. This article is par for the course for the type of articles you'll see in the Weekly.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: eriksd

                                  Wow, I had no idea he was THE editor. That certainly changes things, and not in his favor.

                                  1. re: Soul Vole

                                    Yeah, I know its shocking that he's the editor when you'd like to think that a editor would be an advocate for accuracy and Arellano clearly could care less about it.

                                    I wouldn't expect the Weekly to have the same journalism standards at the New York Times or even the OC Register. And, those papers make their fair share of mistakes too but they'll admit when they've made a mistake and subequently correct their article.

                                    In contrast, the Weekly never admits it made a mistake or makes corrections even after readers notify the Weekly of a mistake. Instead of taking the readers' comments as a teachable moment to review their process so it won't happen again, Arellano attacks the readers and so we see the same type of mistakes.

                                2. That explains why my dinner was so heavy

                                  1. It's super easy to make your own at home. I've been doing this for a couple of weeks now.

                                    Just put about a pound of peppers (I use Fresnos, since they're usually available at my local grocery) into a pressure cooker, along with a cup of cider vinegar, two teaspoons of sea salt, and a few swigs of hickory liquid smoke. Pressure cook them for about 3 minutes max. Then pour it all into a blender along with several cloves of fresh garlic and blend it up. Lastly, strain it through a fine mesh strainer to remove the pulp.

                                    The color is way more intense than what you get in the store bought variety. You could also probably experiment with some dried chiles as well for some more complexity.