Fruit juice is an ingrained part of the American diet, especially among children, some three-quarters of whom have at least a glass of juice each day. Now an alarming report has found that many commercial juices may expose kids to dangerously high levels of heavy metals, including arsenic.
In a new study by Consumer Reports, the organization tested 45 popular fruit juices from 24 national, store, and private-label brands. The juices included apple, pear, grape, and fruit-juice blends. They were tested for four heavy metals that can be dangerous for human consumption: arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury.
Every product had measurable levels of at least one of the heavy metals, and 21 had high enough levels of arsenic, cadmium, or lead to be concerning (based on levels established by the EPA, European Food Safety Authority, and the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment). Of the 21 products with elevated heavy-metal levels, seven had amounts high enough that, over time, they could harm children who drink 4 ounces or more per day; nine had amounts that could pose a risk at 8 ounces or more per day.
The remaining five products were juice boxes or pouches marketed for children and ranging from 4 to about 7 ounces. These pose a risk to a child who drinks more than one box or pouch per day, Consumer Reports concluded. Ten of the tested juices had heavy metal loads high enough to also pose a risk to adults who consume more than 4 or 8 ounces a day, depending on the product.
Grape juice and fruit-juice blends harbored the highest levels of heavy metals overall. Organic juices did not have lower levels of heavy metals than conventional ones.
What the findings mean
Heavy metals occur naturally in the earth’s crust, soil, and rocks, so we’re exposed to them to some extent every day. But our soil, air, and water are further contaminated by heavy metals from pollution, pesticides, fertilizer, and other human activities, which are transferred from the soil into the plants that grow in it. Though the risks of heavy metals from any single source may be low, when people are exposed to even small amounts from multiple sources, the danger multiplies over time.
The harmful effects of heavy metal exposure are well documented for both children and adults. Even low blood levels of lead in children are associated with behavior and learning problems,lower IQ, hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems, and anemia. In adults, lead exposure can contribute to high blood pressure, decreased kidney function, and reproductive problems.
Ingesting too much arsenic may lead to nausea, vomiting, decreased production of red and white blood cells, and damage to blood vessels. Long-term exposure to arsenic in drinking water has been associated with skin disorders and increased risk fordiabetes and several types of cancer. There is some evidence that long-term exposure to arsenic in children can also lead tolower IQ. Likewise, exposure to high levels of cadmium is associated with severe irritation of the stomach leading to vomiting and diarrhea. Long-term exposure at lower levels may cause kidney damage.
In light of its findings, Consumer Reports has asked the FDA to aggressively limit the acceptable amount of heavy metals in juice products. The FDA currently has no set limit for arsenic or cadmium in juice; for lead, the agency has set a guideline of 50 parts per billion, but that’s 10 times higher than what’s allowed in bottled water, Consumer Reports points out.
The report has elicited criticism from juice companies and the Juice Products Association, a trade group, which urged Consumer Reports to refrain from “raising unnecessary alarm,” arguing that “trace, harmless” amounts of heavy metal in juice are not cause for concern.
What you can do
The best way to limit children’s exposure to heavy metals in fruit juice is to limit the amount of juice they drink. That’s already sound advice, since juice is high in calories (mostly from sugar) and has less fiber than whole fruit. The American Academy of Pediatrics already advises limiting children’s juice consumption for these reasons.
In addition, consumers may want to reduce their own or their children’s intake of other foods that have been found to harbor higher levels of heavy metals, including rice and rice products, chocolate and cocoa powders, and sweet potatoes. That doesn’t mean cutting out these items entirely; rather, consider it one more reason to eat an assortment of grains and other plant foods instead of very large amounts of any one food. Limiting heavy metal exposure from food may be especially important for families that use private well water, which can contain higher levels of arsenic.