The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said it will consider setting a standard for how much arsenic should be permitted in apple juice after a consumer group found high levels of the carcinogen in samples of apple juice it tested.
Menacing reports about arsenic in fruit juice were first released back in September, when TV talk show host Dr. Mehmet Oz announced he'd found high levels of arsenic in several common apple juice products. Oz caught heat from the FDA, among others, for fear mongering and using unconfirmed data to vilify apple juice as a vehicle for toxins.
Now, a consumer group has done its own study, and it also detected high levels of the risky kind of arsenic in juice products. And this time, lead was also found.
Consumers Union, the group the publishes Consumer Reports, tested 88 juice samples – mostly apple juice — of popular brands found in grocery stores.
Not only did 10 percent of the samples contain levels of arsenic higher than the federal standard for drinking water, but one-quarter tested for lead levels higher than the FDA standard for bottled water, the report says.
Arsenic levels in apple juice reached as high as 14 parts per billion, or ppb, and the highest level in grape juices hit nearly 25 ppb. The tap water standard is 10 ppb and bottled water is 5 ppb. No FDA limit currently exists for juice — there's only a "level of concern" set at 23 ppb.
In response to the Consumer Reports study, the FDA released a statement.
They said that "...a small percentage of samples contain elevated levels of arsenic. In response, FDA has expanded our surveillance activities and is collecting additional data to help determine if a guidance level can be established that will reduce consumer's exposure to arsenic in apple juice."
Consumers Union wants the FDA to adjust those standards. The organization recommends that federal standards be set at 3 ppb for arsenic and 5 ppb for lead. Using these levels, 59 percent of the samples tested would not be safe to drink.
"We calculated that level so that if a child drank 4 to 6 ounces of juice daily, they would be under the daily limit of arsenic intake," Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union, tells NPR's food blog "The Salt." "It would give them a one in 1000 risk for skin, bladder and lung cancer."
About 35 percent of children 5 and younger drink more juice than pediatricians recommend. "Kids are known to consume more juice per pound of body weight than adults," Dr. Jerome Paulson, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics council on environmental health, tells The Salt. "So, if you're going to set a standard, you have to consider their health."
NPR's April Fulton reported that Oz's testing only looked for total arsenic, which includes the naturally-occurring organic arsenic and the toxic inorganic arsenic, which can be toxic in large doses and over long periods of time.
The latest Consumers Union test, however, found mostly the toxic kind of arsenic in the 10 percent of juice samples that showed high levels of total arsenic.
The juice industry, though, says the fuss is unwarranted. As the Juice Products Association said in a statement:
"Consumer Reports and other media outlets erroneously compare juice to the standards for drinking water. Juice is not water. To compare the trace levels of arsenic or lead in juice to the regulatory guidelines for drinking water is not appropriate because regulatory agencies have set lower thresholds for drinking water than for food and other beverages because people consume larger amounts of water."
So how is the poison making its way into the juice? It could be from pesticides lingering in the soil or the water used throughout the juice-making process, according to Denise Wilson, associate professor at the University of Washington. "Arsenic is like ice cream to apple trees," she said. Since most apple juice concentrate now comes from China, where pesticide standards are much less tough, that may be another source of the problem.
While the FDA contemplates setting a standard, Paulson says kids would be perfectly fine without juice.
"Juice is basically sweet water," he says. "Kids are better off getting the vitamins from the fruit or vegetable itself because then they get some additional nutrients like vitamins or fibers."