Arsenic in our food supply: What you should know

Arsenic and Apple Juice
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Dr. Mehmet Oz, star of the popular Dr. Oz Show and cardiothoracic surgeon, is a very influential person. He has been listed on several rankings of America’s Most Influential People, including Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2008 and Esquire Magazines 75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century. So, when he informs his viewers about a dangerous chemical found in a popular beverage, it is understandable that it makes people take notice, including in this instance, the FDA.

Dr. Oz had an independent lab - EMSL Analytical, Inc. - test 50 different brands of apple juice for the element arsenic. Arsenic is used in the production of pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides and although its use is declining due to health concerns, traces of the chemical can still be found in some of the foods we eat and the beverages we drink. Ten of the brands tested were found to have arsenic levels that exceeded the standards set for drinking water, which is 10 parts per billion (ppb). One brand was found to have 36 ppb.

Dr. Oz said that the findings were concerning to him both as a doctor and a parent, and advocates that the maximum allowable levels in all foods and beverages be set lower to protect the health of Americans.

More on eMaxHealth.com: Chicken Meat May Contain Arsenic but Safe To Eat

The US Food and Drug Administration was quick to contest Dr. Oz’s report, saying that the testing was inaccurate because it tested for organic arsenic (which the agency has deemed as not harmful) in addition to inorganic arsenic (potentially poisonous) and that all apple juice sold in stores is safe. The FDA conducted its own investigation, and stated that their testing results for arsenic compounds were considerably lower than what Dr. Oz’s team found.

"To try and interpret that data to mean that apple juice is unsafe, is misleading. It's irresponsible, and I think they're needlessly scaring parents," said FDA scientist Don Zink, PhD, in a statement.

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In 2006 to 2008, the US Apple Association also conducted a test of bottled apple juice and found that the beverages tested contained an average of 5 ppb of total arsenic and that very few samples tested higher than 13 ppb. The FDA automatically does further testing on any product that contains 23 ppb of the chemical. "But even if it comes in lower, we have a right to test that product, too," said FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Yao to WebMD.

More on eMaxHealth.com: Arsenic Exposure from Drinking Water Increases Risk of Stroke, Infant Mortality

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, arsenic is a semi-metal element in the periodic table that is odorless and tasteless. It enters drinking water supplies from natural deposits in the earth or from agricultural and industrial practices. When ingested, about 80-90% of arsenic is absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract, according to the Human Health Fact Sheet by the Argonne National Laboratory (US Department of Energy). Once metabolized, most is eliminated by the urine within a week.

Very low levels of arsenic are not dangerous, but long-term exposure to high levels can be toxic. Excessive ingestion of the element has been linked to cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, nasal passages, liver, and prostate. Ingestion of small amounts over time can also produce chronic effects such as skin darkening, damage to peripheral nerves, cardiovascular system effects, and hair loss.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree that high levels of inorganic arsenic are proven dangerous to human health. However, organic arsenic has not been well studied. Animal studies do show that some simple organic arsenic compounds are less toxic, but the health effects in humans is not known.

The bottom line is that consumers should be concerned about the foods that they eat, and have a right to be informed, but at this point in time there is not enough evidence to ban apple juice, or any other fruit juice, from the diet due to concerns about arsenic toxicity. Americans can choose only US-produced products, as other countries may not have the same quality standards that the United States has in regards to farming techniques. As an example, the FDA has warned in the past about high levels of arsenic in grape juice from Argentina and in pear juice from China.

Consumers should also take into consideration the entire diet, and not just one element. Continuing to eat fast foods, processed foods, and those high in fat and sugar will likely shorten lives more quickly than overconsumption of arsenic-containing fruit juice.

Image Credit: Morguefile.com

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