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Jul 24, 2013 06:37 PM

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.