|January 30, 2019|
Arsenic and lead are in your fruit juice: What you need to know
|Fruit juice's health halo has slipped in recent years, mainly because it packs a lot of sugar and calories. But there's another, lesser-known health risk with these juices: They may also contain potentially harmful levels of arsenic, cadmium, and lead, according to new tests from Consumer Reports.|
CR tested 45 popular fruit juices sold across the country---including apple, grape, pear, and fruit blends---and found elevated levels of those elements, commonly known as heavy metals, in almost half of them, including juices marketed for children. "In some cases, drinking just 4 ounces a day---or half a cup---is enough to raise concern," says James Dickerson, Ph.D., CR's chief scientific officer.
Our test focused on cadmium, lead, mercury, and inorganic arsenic (the type most harmful to health) because they pose some of the greatest risks, and prior research suggests they are common in food and drink.
And Americans, especially the nation's children, drink a lot of juice. More than 80 percent of parents of children age 3 and younger give their kids fruit juice at least sometimes, according to a recent national Consumer Reports survey of 3,002 parents. In 74 percent of those cases, kids drink juice once a day or more.
Children are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of heavy metals. "Exposure to these metals early on can affect their whole life trajectory," says Jennifer Lowry, M.D., chairperson of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Environmental Health. "There is so much development happening in their first years of life."
But heavy metals can harm adults, too. "Five of the juices we tested pose a risk to adults at 4 or more ounces per day, and five others pose a risk at 8 or more ounces," Dickerson says.
Here, we look into why heavy metals are dangerous, why so many products have high levels, what manufacturers are doing to lower those levels, and how parents can protect their children---and themselves.
How Heavy Metals Can Harm
The harmful effects of heavy metals are well-documented. Depending on how long children are exposed to these toxins and how much they are exposed to, they may be at risk for lowered IQ, behavioral problems (such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), type 2 diabetes, and cancer, among other health issues.
Though the risks of heavy metals from any one source may be low, when people are exposed to even small amounts from multiple sources, over time the danger multiplies.
And such exposure is common. Previous tests from CR and others have found elevated levels of heavy metals not just in juices but also in infant and toddler foods, rice and rice products, protein powder, some types of fish, and sweet potatoes. The toxins may also be in the environment, including the water, the air, and the soil.
"In the course of a lifetime, the average person will come into contact with these metals many times, from many sources," says Tunde Akinleye, a chemist in Consumer Reports' Food Safety division who led our testing. "We're exposed to these metals so frequently during our lives that it's vital to limit exposures early on."
Heavy metals may be less risky to adults, but exposure can still lead to health problems. Over many years, even modest amounts of heavy metals may raise the risk of bladder, lung, and skin cancer; cognitive and reproductive problems; and type 2 diabetes, among other conditions.
And arsenic, cadmium, and lead each pose their own set of potential harms. Lead, for example, is associated with high blood pressure, heart disease, and fertility problems. Arsenic is linked to cardiovascular disease. And long-term cadmium exposure increases the risk of bone damage and kidney disease, among other issues.
Still, Dickerson says it's never too late to change dietary habits even if you, or your children, have been drinking juices higher in heavy metals. "The risk comes from chronic exposure," he says. "Minimizing consumption of juices and other foods that have heavy metals can reduce the chance of negative outcomes in the future."
What CR's Tests Found
In 2011, CR found elevated levels of inorganic arsenic and lead in apple and grape juices. Our most recent tests were conducted to see whether products have improved since then, to examine other types of juice, and to test for additional heavy metals.
For CR's current project, we looked at 45 juices in four flavors: apple (22), fruit juice blends (13), grape (7), and pear (3). Most were from concentrate, meaning that all water was removed from the pressed fruit for transport, then added back in at the factory.
Twenty-four national, store, and private-label brands were represented: 365 Everyday Value (Whole Foods), Apple & Eve, Big Win (Rite Aid), Capri Sun, Clover Valley (Dollar General), Great Value (Walmart), Gerber, Good2Grow, Gold Emblem (CVS), Goya, Honest Kids, Juicy Juice, Looza, Market Pantry (Target), Minute Maid, Mott's, Nature's Own, Ocean Spray, Old Orchard, R.W. Knudsen, Simply Balanced (Target), Trader Joe's, Tree Top, and Welch's.
We purchased three samples of each product from retailers across the country. (Our findings were a spot check of the market and should not be used to draw definitive conclusions about specific brands.)
Among the findings:
• Every product had measurable levels of at least one of these heavy metals: cadmium, inorganic arsenic, lead, or mercury.
• Twenty-one (47 percent) of the 45 juices had concerning levels of cadmium, inorganic arsenic, and/or lead. (None contained concerning levels of mercury.)
• Seven of those 21 juices could harm children who drink 4 ounces (½ cup) or more a day; nine of them pose risks to kids at 8 ounces (1 cup) or more a day.
• Five of the products with elevated levels are juice boxes or pouches ranging from 4 to 6.75 ounces. These pose a risk to a child who drinks more than one box or pouch per day.
• Ten of the juices pose a risk to adults: five of them at 4 ounces or more a day, and five at 8 ounces or more a day.
• Grape juice and juice blends had the highest average heavy metal levels.
• Juice brands marketed for children did not fare better or worse than other juices.
• Organic juices did not have lower levels of heavy metals than conventional ones.
We asked all of the companies involved in our testing what they are doing to keep heavy metals out of their products. Ten companies representing 13 brands responded. Just two---CVS and Gerber---answered all our questions. Some gave a general statement, and one declined to comment.
Of the companies that responded, most said they did their own testing and adhered to all government regulations. Some also noted that heavy metals can be naturally occurring.
"Our highest priority is to provide safe and high quality products people can trust," read one typical response, from Coca-Cola, which owns Minute Maid and Honest Kids. "Our juice brands obtain fruit from many different growers and all of our suppliers must adhere to the established U.S. inspections and regulations as well as our strict company policies if they want us to buy their product. This is done to ensure that the juice that reaches our consumer's table is safe, fresh tasting and fully compliant with . . . regulations and laws."
How Much Is Too Much?
Just how dangerous is it for you or your child to drink these juices? And what if your child drinks it every day, for several years? For answers, we looked into the potential health risks, based on several factors.
First, we looked at data showing how much juice children and adults typically consume.
We then reviewed the medical research to determine at what exposure level each heavy metal could increase the risk of certain cancers, kidney damage, reproductive disorders, behavioral issues, and other health problems.
Last, we put that information together with our own test results (along with the average body weights for each age group) and calculated how much of the tested juices children and adults would need to drink to face potential health risks.
In many of the juices we tested, the levels of the heavy metals combined were more concerning than the level of any one specific heavy metal. "Each of these metals has shown similar adverse effects on children's developing brains and nervous systems, and there are potential additive effects," says CR chemist Akinleye.
Another issue: The amounts of heavy metals in any one type of food may be low, but because heavy metals are found in other foods and the environment---and because they tend to accumulate in the body---small amounts can add up. In fact, in some juices the heavy metal levels left little to no room for exposure from other sources, such as drinking water, food, and air, Akinleye says.
Are There Limits?
One way to reduce exposure to heavy metals would be through government-established limits---but few are in place.
Consider arsenic. Back in 2013, and partly in response to CR's earlier report on apple and grape juice, the Food and Drug Administration proposed limiting inorganic arsenic in apple juice to 10 parts per billion (ppb), the federal arsenic standard for drinking water. The FDA previously told CR that limit would be set by the end of 2018. But it is still not in place.
"We encourage the FDA to finalize the limit as soon as possible," says Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at CR. "And we have pushed the agency to establish an even lower threshold for inorganic arsenic in apple juice at 3 ppb. We also believe more juices should be covered, not just apple." All but one of the juices in our current tests had inorganic arsenic levels below the FDA's proposed 10 ppb limit, and 58 percent had levels below CR's recommended cutoff of 3 ppb.
Trader Joe's Fresh Pressed Apple Juice was the only product above the FDA's proposed 10 ppb limit for inorganic arsenic, with the three samples we tested averaging 15.4 ppb. When asked about those results, a Trader Joe's spokesperson said, "We will investigate your findings, as we are always ready to take whatever action is necessary to ensure the safety and quality of our products."
As for lead, the FDA has set a guideline for juice---50 ppb---but CR thinks it should be much lower. The standard for lead in bottled water, for example, is 10 times lower, at 5 ppb. And the bottled water industry seems to be meeting an even lower level of 1 ppb, according to an analysis of FDA data by the Environmental Defense Fund. That's what the American Academy of Pediatrics says the lead level in school drinking water fountains should be. "Juice should also meet this threshold," says Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director at EDF.
Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, says even 1 ppb might be too high. "It's clear from an abundance of research that there is no safe level for lead exposure," she says.
And as with inorganic arsenic, our tests show that it is possible for manufacturers to sharply reduce the lead in their products. More than half (53 percent) of the products we tested had levels of 1 ppb or less. Only two juices---Welch's 100% Juice With Antioxidant Superberry and Welch's 100% Grape Juice, Concord Grape---had average lead levels higher than 5 ppb.
When asked about Welch's comparatively high lead levels, a company spokesperson said, "All Welch's juice is safe and strictly complies with all applicable legal requirements. Naturally occurring elements such as lead and arsenic are present in the soil, air, and water. Therefore, they are also found in very low, harmless levels in many fruits and vegetables."
When it comes to cadmium, the FDA has not proposed a limit for juice. But Consumer Reports supports a limit of 1 ppb. Just three juices we tested had cadmium levels higher than that amount.
"Our tests show that there's no reason why the FDA should not set aggressive targets for cadmium, inorganic arsenic, and lead, in all fruit juices," says CR's Dickerson. "Clearly, many manufacturers are already there."
After the government re-opened, we reached out to the FDA for comment on this article but were unable to speak with anyone in time for publication. However, when we contacted the agency for a response to our test results of heavy metals in baby food in 2018, it said: "The agency has made this a priority and is working to reduce the health risks these elements present, especially to those most vulnerable: children."
CR sent a letter to the FDA that outlines our findings on juice. Consumer Reports will update this story with a comment if the agency eventually responds.
What Companies Can Do
Overall, heavy metal levels in fruit juices have gone down since CR's last tests. For example, in 2011 just 29 percent of juices we tested had lead levels below 1 ppb, compared with 53 percent now.
With inorganic arsenic, the change isn't as dramatic but is moving in the right direction: 55 percent below 3 ppb in 2011, compared with 58 percent now.
CR even tested some of the exact same juices in 2011 as in 2018; in most of them, heavy metal levels declined, sometimes sharply. For example, the inorganic arsenic level in Gerber's 100% Apple Juice dropped by 79 percent since 2011, and its lead level dropped by 97 percent. This makes it the most improved product we tested and puts that juice below CR's level of concern.
Inorganic arsenic and lead levels in CVS's Gold Emblem 100% Grape Juice also went down---by 37 percent and 63 percent, respectively---though its levels were still above our safety cutoff.
What could account for these kinds of improvements?
Neltner, at the Environmental Defense Fund, thinks companies may be more carefully analyzing their entire "supply chain, from orchard to store, to figure out where the contamination is happening."
That's important, because heavy metals are found throughout the environment, says Sheila Macfie, Ph.D., associate professor of biology at Western University in Ontario, Canada. In some cases, those compounds enter the air, water, and soil through melting glaciers, volcanic activities, or other natural events---and sometimes through pollution, mining, pesticides, or other human activities. Lead- and arsenic-based pesticides---now highly restricted in the U.S.---were once heavily used in orchards.
Whatever the source, plants often take up heavy metals from contaminated soil and water. So careful sourcing and testing is key.
That's what Gerber claims to have done to minimize the heavy metals in its juices. The company told CR that it has focused on adhering to recommended limits, carefully sourcing its ingredients, and utilizing "best-in-class" testing methods and equipment. For example, it now purifies the water used in its juices through reverse osmosis, a method that can reduce, though not eliminate, certain heavy metals.
But grape juice still needs improvement. Heavy metal levels remain high in that beverage, though it's unclear why. Whatever the reason, "grape juice producers need to really start figuring out where the problems are," Neltner says.
What Parents Can Do
The best way to reduce your child's exposure to heavy metals in fruit juice is to limit how much fruit juice they drink. "But many parents still give their children juice on a daily basis," says CR's Akinleye.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has long recommended limiting how much juice children consume, mainly because it contains lots of sugar, contributing to tooth decay, and calories, leading to obesity, says Steven A. Abrams, M.D., director of the Dell Pediatric Institute and co-author of the AAP's juice guidance. "Many perceive fruit juice as healthy, but it is not a good substitute for fresh fruit," he says. Though juice does have some nutrients, such as vitamin C, it lacks fiber.
Because of those nutritional concerns, the AAP says parents should avoid giving children younger than 1 year old any fruit juice. After that, the daily maximum amounts are: 1- to 3-year-olds, 4 ounces; 4- to 6-year-olds, 6 ounces; 7 years and older, 8 ounces.
Soda or other sugar-sweetened drinks, of course, are not good substitutes. Better choices: for infants, breast milk or infant formula; for older children, water and low-fat or nonfat milk. Even teens and adults should watch how much juice they drink. Water and milk are better choices for them, too.
You can also limit your exposure and your child's exposure to heavy metals by limiting the consumption of other foods high in the compounds, such as rice and rice products, chocolate, and sweet potatoes.
"Some foods are more likely than others to contain toxic heavy metals, and it's important to minimize these foods in your family's meals," says Amy Keating, R.D., a nutritionist at CR. "This is yet another reason to provide your child with a healthy and varied diet of whole foods."
When you do choose to drink juice, you can also reduce your risk by choosing products that our tests show are lower in heavy metals. For details, see the chart below.
Where We Found Heavy Metals
Consumer Reports tested the 45 juices listed in the chart below, representing a cross section of the market. We tested three samples of each juice, and the samples were purchased from different retailers across the country.
For each juice, we calculated a daily limit---the serving size an adult or child would need to drink to pose potential health risks from heavy metals. Twenty-one of the products contained enough of a single heavy metal or a combination to reach a level that CR's experts believe is concerning. The other 24 juices are better alternatives based on our risk assessment. (Our findings are a spot check of the market and cannot be used to draw definitive conclusions about brands.)
To use the chart, roll over the images of the juices and the card will flip to show the name of the juice and whether it poses a risk for adults, children, or both at the designated serving size. Within each risk category, the juices are organized by juice type---apple, grape, pear, and juice blends---then alphabetically by product name.
The images shown are of the actual products Consumer Reports purchased for our tests. CR's secret shoppers found that all the products were still available as of November 2018.