Hot Sauce That Packs More Than Heat

By Kate Sheehy
July 30, 2013
Kate Sheehy
Jennifer Berger is a Lead and Healthy Homes Specialist at UNLV. She is one of the two researchers who worked on the hot sauce study.

The chilies in your favorite hot sauce may give you more of a kick than you bargained for. A research team at the University of Nevada Las Vegas has found elevated levels of lead in several hot sauces imported from Mexico. Lead exposure can be dangerous-especially for children and pregnant women. 

Jennifer Berger and her research partner at UNLV found that four out of 25 bottles of hot sauce tested had lead contaminants. She says a 2006 recall of Mexican-style candies made the researchers question hot sauce as well.

“They have very common ingredients, the chili and the salt, which is where we suspect some of the lead contamination comes from,” says Berger.

Lead exposure can slow the mental development of a child and cause learning disabilities. Berger wants the Food and Drug Administration to apply the same standards to hot sauce that they currently use for candy.  

“We realize that hot sauce is not as highly consumed by children, but that would be this a safeguard,” she says. 

The hot sauce brands found with lead levels that exceeded the candy standard are: Salsa Habanera, El Pato, Salsa Picante de Chile Habanero, and Búfalo Salsa Clasica. 

The FDA declined to go on tape for this story but said they will review the study and consider future actions. Only one distributor, Los Angeles-based Walker Foods Inc., announced they are discontinuing sales of one of the hot sauces, El Pato, in the wake of the UNLV study.

Meanwhile, at some Las Vegas groceries, hot sauce sales are as strong as ever. Tina Angel shops at Mariana’s Latin Market on Sahara Boulevard. 

"I've heard on the news that some Mexican hot sauces have lead, and I know we've eaten those brands.  In fact, I stll have them in the fridge and haven't thrown them out yet," she said, "but now I'll make my own hot sauce for the family."

Editor's note:  After this story was published, Walker Foods contacted us to clarify that, while they have discontinued the product, they believe El Pato Salsa is still a safe product and they dispute UNLV's findings.