June 2012 Issue
Is Arsenic Poisoning Our Fruit Juice? — RDs Discuss the Recent Reports About Contaminants in Children’s Beverages
By Christina M. Barth, BA, and Christin L. Seher, MS, RD, LD
Vol. 14 No. 6 P. 12
For years, nutrition professionals have cautioned parents about the adverse effects that the overconsumption of sugary drinks can have on their children’s health.
Yet the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the newly released Choose MyPlate nutrition education initiative, and the Fruits and Veggies More Matters campaign advise parents that 100% fruit juice can fit healthfully into their child’s diet when consumed in moderation. As a result, millions of parents look to fruit juice as a good source of vitamins and minerals, making it a staple in their refrigerators and kitchen pantries. But during the last six months, concerns have surfaced regarding the manufacturing of fruit juice, with heightened attention given to arsenic, which has made its way into apple juice and other beverages many children drink daily.
This concern was brought to the public’s attention last September when The Dr. Oz Show used an independent lab to test five different brands of apple juice for arsenic.1 According to the findings, 10 samples of apple juice came back with arsenic levels higher than what’s currently allowed in drinking water by the FDA and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is defined as 10 parts per billion.1,2 This discovery sparked a nationwide debate on both the accuracy of the tests as well as the implications of these findings.
Truth About Arsenic
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element found in the air, water, and soil, so everyone is exposed to trace amounts of it all the time. But arsenic also can result from contamination through the use of agricultural pesticides.2,3 Two types of arsenic exist: organic and inorganic. Research indicates that inorganic arsenic is the primary contributor to adverse health effects in people who experience long-term exposure. Studies show it’s associated with a higher risk of cancer and cognitive delay in children.2,3 However, some evidence suggests that certain types of organic arsenic also may pose health risks.2 The more toxic inorganic arsenic is found mostly in pesticides that have been banned in the United States for decades.
The FDA challenged Dr Oz’s interpretation of the test results, noting that the arsenic found in the apple juice varieties he tested was largely organic, making the levels virtually harmless.3 Nonetheless, later tests by Consumer Reports indicated that several brands actually contained inorganic arsenic.4 These brands could have been imported from countries where pesticides containing inorganic arsenic are used legally.
As if the scare regarding arsenic in apple juice wasn’t enough, a different contaminant recently was discovered in another household favorite: orange juice. In early 2012, reports surfaced that trace amounts of the fungicide carbendazim, used to kill fungus and stop the growth of mold on agricultural products, was found in orange juice.5 While carbendazim is used legally in other countries, it’s not permitted for use in the United States, as laboratory tests associate it with developmental abnormalities in animals, thus posing a potential risk to human health.5 This fungicide is commonly used in Brazil, one of the major importers of orange juice to the United States.5
Melissa Johnson, RD, LD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, believes that reports such as these “open a door to a conversation we need to be having. We really do need to start thinking about where our food comes from. What went into that food, and how can we make it safer?”
Keeping Families Safe
The fears instilled by the presence of contaminants in juice products have prompted many to investigate how best to protect children. Nutrition professionals can help parents sort through the information to make the most informed choices for their families. Nikki Maffei, RD, LD, a maternal and child dietitian in northeast Ohio, has worked with clients who’ve questioned the safety of juice after hearing reports of the contamination. “A few moms asked directly about arsenic in juice, and a few mentioned they no longer buy apple juice because of what they heard or a family member heard on The Dr. Oz Show,” she notes. “I reassure parents that the juice is safe.”
It’s logical for parents to question whether buying organic juices for their children is safer than nonorganic varieties and that in doing so they’ll eliminate the possibility of consuming contaminants. In this regard, both Johnson and the FDA remind parents there’s no current scientific evidence that proves buying organic will eliminate the exposure to potential contaminants. While Johnson notes that research indicates children given organic produce have less measurable pesticide residue in their blood, “what this means, long-term, isn’t known.” In the case of arsenic exposure, just because pesticides aren’t used on the apples doesn’t mean the product won’t contain it. As Johnson asserts, organic apples also grow in soil that may contain arsenic.
What’s more, organic products can be more expensive than nonorganic brands. But Johnson stresses that the most important factor is to ensure children are getting a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in their diet. The fear of contaminants in nonorganic juices shouldn’t stop parents from purchasing those products. “We simply don’t have the evidence to tell families they should purchase organic,” she says, “especially if that message is causing them to consume less produce overall due to the cost.”
Ditch the Juice?
While parents don’t need to eliminate juice from their child’s diet, Johnson recommends they limit intake “not necessarily to avoid arsenic [or other contaminants] but because of caloric density,” which may contribute to overweight and obesity and the development of dental caries. Parents should focus on serving a variety of whole fruits and vegetables so their children can get the maximal nutritional benefit.
Maffei agrees: “The parents I had contact with may have stopped giving apple juice [to their children] but still gave other juices or sweetened beverages. I may have had one parent stop giving juice all together. Parents should know that keeping juice to just 4 oz a day, as recommended, is the best choice.”
In the meantime, clients should know that the FDA and the EPA are working to protect public health and ensure the US food supply is safe to the best of their ability, given the limited resources and the large number of food products in the United States. Efforts are in place to monitor and test fruit juice and fruit juice concentrates for both arsenic and carbendazim levels and to reevaluate standards for contaminants in juice.2,3 While products not meeting safety thresholds are removed from the market immediately, the FDA continues to insist that exposure to trace amounts of these elements isn’t a cause for concern.2,3
As the American food supply, which Johnson describes as “complicated,” continues to evolve, it’s likely that more and more controversies such as these will arise. Johnson advises clients to become knowledgeable consumers. “We don’t need to be scared of our food,” she says, “but we do need to be aware.”
— Christina M. Barth, BA, is a recent graduate of an ACEND-coordinated program in dietetics.
— Christin L. Seher, MS, RD, LD, is founder of Strategic Health Solutions, LLC, serving northeastern Ohio.
1. Dr. Oz investigates: arsenic in apple juice. The Dr. Oz Show website. http://www.doctoroz.com/videos/dr-oz-investigates-arsenic-apple-juice. September 12, 2011. Accessed April 12, 2012.
2. Questions & answers: apple juice and arsenic. US Food and Drug Administration website. http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm271595.htm. December 16, 2011. Accessed April 12, 2012.
3. FDA statement: arsenic in apple juice. The Dr. Oz Show website. http://www.doctoroz.com/videos/fda-statement-arsenic-apple-juice. Accessed April 12, 2012.
4. Consumer Reports tests juices for arsenic and lead. Consumer Reports website. http://news.consumerreports.org/safety/2011/11/consumer-reports-tests-juices-for-arsenic-and-lead.html. November 30, 2011. Accessed April 12, 2012.
5. Ginsberg G. Orange juice shows us the toxic side of international trade. The Huffington Post website. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-gary-ginsberg/orange-juice-toxic-pesticides_b_1215160.html. January 19, 2012. Accessed April 12, 2012.