For some of the juices – all from well-known brands – drinking just 4 ounces a day is enough to cause concern.
To cover her smallpox scars, Queen Elizabeth I used a concoction of lead and vinegar to smooth out her complexion; much like women in the Roman Empire used lead makeup to brighten up their faces. Victorian hatters went mad thanks to the mercury used to make felt; and one can only imagine how 19th-century women seeking smooth skin felt after eating the “arsenic wafers” that promised to remove blemishes. Lead, mercury, arsenic, oh my. Thank heavens we know so much better now!
Or not. Because as we keep discovering, these pesky heavy metals continue to sneak into our food.The latest grand reveal comes courtesy of Consumer Reports, which tested 45 popular fruit juices sold across the country and found elevated levels of inorganic arsenic, cadmium, and lead in nearly half of them.
“In some cases, drinking just 4 ounces a day – or half a cup – is enough to raise concern,” says James Dickerson, Ph.D., Consumer Report’s (CR) chief scientific officer.
The flavors tested were apple, grape, pear, and fruit blends – and they weren’t some sketchy, fly-by-night brands. They came from 24 national, store, and private-label brands – including some of the most popular and recognizable juice brands out there.
Here’s what they found:
• Every product had measurable levels of at least one of cadmium, inorganic arsenic, lead, or mercury.
• Twenty-one of the 45 juices had concerning levels of cadmium, inorganic arsenic, and/or lead.
• Seven of those 21 juices could prove harmful to children who drink 4 ounces or more a day; nine of them pose risks to kids at 8 ounces or more a day.
• Grape juice and juice blends had the highest average heavy metal levels.
• Juice brands marketed for children did not fare better or worse than other juices.
• Organic juices did not have lower levels of heavy metals than conventional ones.
Meanwhile, more than 80 percent of parents give their kids aged 3 and younger juice sometimes; 74 percent of those kids drink juice once a day or more.
Heavy metals are particularly rough on children. “Depending on how long children are exposed to these toxins and how much they are exposed to,” notes CR, “they may be at risk for lowered IQ, behavioral problems (such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), type 2 diabetes, and cancer, among other health issues.”
And adults aren’t off the hook either. In both children and adults, the toxins accumulate over time. Over many years, even modest amounts of heavy metals in adults may raise the risk of bladder, lung, and skin cancer; cognitive and reproductive problems; and type 2 diabetes, among other conditions.
“Five of the juices we tested pose a risk to adults at 4 or more ounces per day, and five others pose a risk at 8 or more ounces,” Dickerson says.
On a somewhat brighter note, the levels seem to be improving relative to earlier testing. The heavy metals in question are found in the environment and enter the air, water, and soil through melting glaciers, volcanic activities, or other natural events. As well as through the less poetic routes of pollution, mining, pesticides, and other human activities. Plants can take up the heavy metals from tainted soil and water – so if a company carefully sources and tests their ingredients, it can make a big difference.
In the meantime, the best thing a parent can do is limit the amount of juice they offer their children. Given that juice is crazy high in sugar anyway, it certainly can’t hurt. Because the natural sugar in fruit juice contributes to to tooth decay, and calories/obesity, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests these limits:
Under 1: No fruit juice
Ages 1-3: Daily maximum 4 ounces
Ages 4-6: Daily maximum 6 ounces
Ages 7+: Daily maximum 8 ounces
But given the presence of heavy metals, even that little seems like too much. Here's a hot tip: Water is great!
I urge readers to head over to the full spread at Consumer Reports to see which brands were tested and how they fared, and to read more about the health effects of heavy metals in juices and in general. Some of the companies offered comments; Consumer Reports also gives an interesting account of the FDA's response about the issue.
We’ve certainly come a long way since women were eating arsenic and slathering their faces with lead, but that we’re still giving our kids heavy-metal laced drinks suggests we still have a long way to go.
For the whole scoop, see: Arsenic and Lead Are in Your Fruit Juice: What You Need to Know