A new study by Consumer Reports states that some fruit juices pose potentially harmful levels of heavy metals. In its analysis of 45 fruit juices sold nationwide, the nonprofit advocacy organization found that nearly half contained elevated levels of inorganic arsenic, lead, or cadmium.
According to Hannah Gardener, ScD, nutritional epidemiologist and founder of A Green Slate Consulting, Boston, Mass., foods and beverages can become tainted with heavy metals if they’re grown in contaminated soil and water. Due to past use of heavy metal-containing pesticides, many orchards and fields have become contaminated.
But many heavy metals naturally occur in the environment as well, says Alex Berezow, PhD, vice president of scientific affairs, American Council on Science and Health, New York, New York.
Children, who are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of heavy metals, consume a lot of fruit juice. More than 80 percent of parents of children three and under give their kids juice at least sometimes, according to Consumer Reports’ survey.
Gardener says consuming foods with elevated levels of lead, cadmium, and inorganic arsenic can have significant health effects, particularly for babies and children who are sensitive to their effects. “As a potent neurotoxin, lead is toxic to the brain, and especially developing brains,” she says. “Its effects are permanent and irreversible, and there is no safe level of lead consumption. It’s also considered a potent reproductive toxin. Cadmium is also a neurotoxin and reproductive toxin and has damaging effects on the liver. Inorganic arsenic is particularly concerning as it’s known to cause cancer.”
The Consumer Reports’ article encourages the FDA to limit levels of heavy metals in foods. “If the FDA established stricter health-protective limits for heavy metals in foods and beverages, it could mean that manufacturers would have to test their products more thoroughly and identify better growing practices, conditions, locations, orchards, and fields in an effort to limit heavy metal contamination,” Gardener says. “These efforts have grown in some areas, particularly in relation to rice and rice-based foods, for example, where the concern about inorganic arsenic contamination has increased over the past eight years or so.”
But Carl Winter, PhD, extension food toxicologist and vice chair, Department of Food Science and Technology, University of California, Davis, Calif., says it’s difficult to designate a “safe” level for heavy metals in specific foods and beverages because consumers are exposed to heavy metals in a wide variety of foods. In general, research indicates that exposure levels are typically below levels of health significance.
Dr. Berezow points out that regulation usually imposes extra costs, which are invariably passed on to consumers. “Therefore, the government should only impose new regulatory burdens if there is sufficient scientific reason to do so,” he says.
Regarding what steps the food and beverage industry can take to decrease levels of inorganic arsenic, lead, and cadmium in foods and beverages, Dr. Winter says there’s little that can be done at the post-harvest level to reduce metals in foods and beverages. “The primary way to reduce levels of heavy metals is to avoid using foods grown in environments possessing high levels of naturally occurring metals,” he says.
Along these lines, Dr. Berezow says that the best strategy is prevention, which means making sure that industry responsibly uses and disposes of materials that contain heavy metals. “If a site is unduly contaminated, it should be cleaned up,” he says.