by Marion Nestle
Dec 8 2011

Consumer Reports’ arsenic-in-juice study: what to do?

I don’t often write about pesticides, plasticizers, heavy metals or other such potentially toxic substances in food because there usually isn’t enough science available to draw firm conclusions about how much of them is OK to consume.

At high concentrations they are demonstrably toxic.  But in food and water, they appear in amounts measured as parts per billion (ppb) or trillion, and it is difficult to know how harmful they may be at such levels.

The big question: is there a threshold for harm or are they unsafe at any level of intake?  The history of regulation of such substances is one of constant reduction in levels considered safe.

They derive in large part from industrial processes, and attempting to regulate them confronts large and powerful industries eager to argue that low levels are safe.

Now Consumer Reports has tested samples of juice and finds levels of arsenic  higher than allowed in drinking water:

  • 10% of the samples contained levels of arsenic that exceed EPA drinking-water standards of 10 ppb.
  • 25% contained levels of lead greater than the FDA’s 5 ppb standard for bottled water.
  • Most arsenic was inorganic, a form linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease, immune disorders, and type 2 diabetes.
  • 35% of children age 5 and younger drink juice in amounts higher than recommended by pediatricians.
  • No federal standards exist for amounts of lead and arsenic in juice.

This is a food systems issue.  Inorganic arsenic gets into food from soil contaminated with arsenic-containing herbicides and waste from animals and chickens fed arsenic-containing additives.

Consumer Reports says:

  • FDA should set a standard for total arsenic in juice at 3 ppb and 5 ppb for lead.
  • EPA should lower the 10 ppb drinking-water limit for arsenic.
  • Parents should limit juice servings to small children.

What does the FDA have to say?

The Food and Drug Administration has every confidence in the safety of apple juice…small amounts of arsenic can be found in certain food and beverage products—including fruit juices and juice concentrates….there is no evidence of any public health risk from drinking these juices…FDA has been testing them for years [see the FDA’s Q and A].

As if this were not enough to worry about, Food Quality News reports increasing concern about the amount of arsenic in rice, the dangers of such levels for pregnant women, and the need to establish better standards for safe levels of arsenic in foods.

Consumer Reports is especially concerned about a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences linking rice consumption to levels of arsenic in the urine of pregnant women.   It notes that children in the U.S. typically are fed rice cereal as their first solid food, making them especially vulnerable to the effects of arsenic.

Arsenic gets into rice in the same way that it gets into apples and grapes, but rice is especially efficient in taking up arsenic from soil.

I see all this as further evidence that agricultural practices are key determinants of public health and that we badly need:

  • More and better research on the effects of small amounts of arsenic, lead, pesticides, and other such toxins in food
  • Research on how to remove such toxins from soil
  • Federal safety standards for arsenic in foods and beverages; the Consumer Reports recommendations make sense
  • Regulations that restrict use of arsenic drugs in animal agriculture and of pesticides containing arsenic
  • Restrictions on the amount of juice and rice given to children

It’s great that Consumer Reports is doing this kind of research but federal agencies should be doing a lot more of it too.

  • BPA. Undue influence by the American Chemistry Council, representing Bayer, Dow Chemical, Mitsubishi, SABIC (formerly GE Plastics), and Sunoco, among others. Doctoral Dissertation:

    You’re welcome.

  • Mitzi

    So would “organic” rice be better, or are the higher levels in rice grown in the south-central US due to natural levels of arsenic in the flood-plain soils of the Mississippi River valley? It would be nice to know, as one could justify the extra expense of the organic rice, or shop at the Asian store if Chinese rice sold for export meets the same standards they use at home. I try to eat local, but if Arkansas rice contains enough arsenic to do harm, I’ll find another source. The question left unanswered in all these discussions is, do these very low levels cause harm? Can our bodies get rid of these small amounts? Is it worth being concerned about if you are not a pregnant female? And if you are pregnant, what on earth would be completely safe to eat if thoroughly analyzed?

  • Pingback: Vitamin D fortified yogurt may cut diabetes heart risks | Herbal Remedies for Weight Loss()

  • Anthro

    @Concerned Reader

    This is a blog, not a professional journal. Perhaps you could give a few specific citations as to those blog entries that you find “opinionated”–as if an opinion should not be offered on a blog!

    Your contrived politeness does not hide your snark. Me? I’m just rude to people like you. At least I’m honest. And I’ll sign my name, too.

    Janet Camp-Milwaukee, Wisconsin

  • Margeretrc

    Turning apples (or any fruit) into juice concentrates whatever harmful substances (fructose, arsenic, etc.) are present into a form that, because the fiber is gone, is quickly and easily absorbed by the body–not good. Get your juice (and your child’s juice–babies don’t need juice and can wait until mature enough to eat whole fruit) in the whole fruit and at least reduce the risk–of much more than just arsenic poisoning. As to rice–the simple answer is don’t eat it. You don’t need it. But I realize that’s too simplistic. I love rice, too, and do eat it on rare occasions when I eat ethnic food that includes it. I would agree with Dr. Nestle’s prescription for our agricultural practices.
    @Glenda, no, poison rice isn’t why countries who eat a lot of rice are poor–if they are. Arsenic, like any other heavy metal, has to be chelated out under the care of a physician if present if large enough quantities to pose concern for health. Otherwise, it will be excreted in the urine, I would imagine, over time. The key is to find an uncontaminated source and not put it in the body in the first place. Not sure what that is. Organic?

  • FG_2009

    Thank you for answering my question! Tough decision for consumers. I eat rice almost everyday and I am not sure what to do…

  • Pingback: Do You Worry About Arsenic or Lead in WIC Juice? | WIC woes()

  • Pingback: FDA Tests Apple Juice for Arsenic, Says Most Are OK | Food Product Recalls()