When you reach for fruit juice at the grocery store, it’s safe to say that when you take it home and pour yourself a glass, the possibility of ingesting potentially dangerous substances doesn’t cross your mind.
But a new study reveals there’s about a 50-50 chance that elevated levels of heavy metals will be part of the package when you pick up a bottle, jug or box of apple juice, grape juice or fruit juice blends. When these and other fruit juices sold across the U.S were tested, 45 percent of them were found to contain “concerning” levels of heavy metals.1
Nonprofit organization Consumer Reports, which provides consumer-oriented research, product ratings and reviews, states that of the popular fruit juices they tested, nearly half of them contained potentially harmful levels of arsenic, mercury, cadmium or lead. Worse, several of the juices are marketed to children, who are particularly vulnerable to injury from heavy metals; that they’re ingested is even more troubling.
In 1996, a study showed that fruit juice consumption in the U.S. had risen over 50 years,2 perhaps, in part, due to the government’s recommendation that people should eat an “adequate” amount of fruit.
Unfortunately, 50 percent of the “fruit” servings consumed by children aged 2 through 18 years are actually fruit juice, a study at a research institute in New York notes,3 which is far different from eating actual fruit. Further, according to Consumer Reports:
“More than 80 percent of parents of children age 3 and younger give their kids fruit juice at least sometimes, according to a recent national Consumer Reports survey of 3,002 parents. In 74 percent of those cases, kids drink juice once a day or more.”4
As Dr. Jennifer Lowry, chairperson of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Environmental Health and director of clinical pharmacology, toxicology and therapeutic innovations at Children’s Mercy Kansas City, says, “Exposure to these metals early on can affect their [children’s] whole life trajectory. There is so much development happening in their first years of life.”5
But ingesting heavy metals isn’t good for adults, either. Chief scientific officer James Dickerson notes that drinking just 4 ounces (or one-half cup) of some of the juices tested is enough to be harmful; five of the other juices tested pose a risk when 8 or more ounces is consumed.
What Problems Are Caused by Heavy Metals?
Researchers in the featured study were most focused on lead, mercury and inorganic arsenic, which Consumer Reports says is the most harmful. When people are exposed to even small amounts of heavy metals from multiple sources, over time the danger multiplies. In short, the toxicity levels are cumulative, and resulting health problems reflect that.
Problems vary depending on the type, as well as the age and body weight of the child and the amounts they’re exposed to, but those mentioned by Consumer Reports are quite disturbing, and it’s by no means a complete list:
In fact, during Consumer Reports’ testing, researchers found seven juices with enough heavy metals to cause potential harm if children should consume more than 4 ounces per day, or one-half cup. Another nine juices tested put kids at risk if they drink 8 ounces or more per day.
According to Tunde Akinleye, a chemist in in the Food Safety division at Consumer Reports, the researchers often found that combined levels of heavy metals is a bigger problem than any one specific heavy metal on its own, as each shows “similar adverse effects” on the developing brains and nervous systems of the children drinking them. NBC Los Angeles reports:
“Persistent exposure to these heavy elements, particularly early in a child’s development, can have longstanding effects throughout their life; respiratory systems, their neurological systems; their immune systems are all developing, so having those exposures early … can have very profound effects.”6
While exposure to adults may be less problematic, exposure over long periods and in even “modest” amounts have been found to be culpable in serious diseases like bladder, skin and lung cancers, cognitive decline, reproductive problems and Type 2 diabetes. Arsenic, cadmium and lead have each been associated with specific conditions:
- Lead has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease and fertility problems
- Arsenic has been linked to cardiovascular disease
- Long-term cadmium exposure is linked to an increased risk of bone damage and kidney disease
How Do Harmful Substances Get Into Your Food and Beverages?
How did such toxic substances get into fruit juices? While some of these substances are naturally occurring in the environment, many of them found in food came from soil or water contaminated through pollution, pesticides or mining.
Not surprisingly, heavy metals are commonly found in both food and beverages, including infant and toddler foods, rice and rice products, protein powder, some types of fish, and sweet potatoes. Akinleye adds:
“In the course of a lifetime, the average person will come into contact with these metals many times, from many sources. We’re exposed to these metals so frequently during our lives that it’s vital to limit exposures early on.”7
To break down the investigation conducted by Consumer Reports, the 45 juices analyzed came from 24 national, store and private-label brands. The stores they came from included Whole Foods, Dollar General, Target, Walmart and Rite-Aid. It’s very telling, and just as disturbing, that among Consumer Reports’ findings,8 dated January 2019:
- Every product tested contained measurable levels of cadmium, inorganic arsenic, lead or mercury, and sometimes all of the above.
- Of the 45 juices tested, 21 had concerning levels of cadmium, inorganic arsenic and/or lead (but not mercury).
- Five of the products with elevated levels were 4- to 6.75-ounce juice boxes or pouches, each posing a risk to children who drink more than one per day.
- Grape juice and juice blends contained the highest averages of heavy metals.
- Organic juices did not have lower levels of heavy metals than conventional ones.
‘Sweetness’ Isn’t Always What It’s Cracked Up To Be
Consumed in healthy amounts, fruit can be good for you, but like many other foods, portion size is crucial. As such, when eating fruit — entirely separate from fruit juice, which I do not recommend — be mindful of its fructose levels. Fructose consumption should be limited to no more than 25 grams per day. If you struggle with weight problems, diabetes, heart disease or cancer, I recommend limiting your fructose intake to 10 to 15 grams a day.
However, addressing what is referred to as “sugar” doesn’t stop there. Lab-enhanced sweetness is arguably one of the most health-damaging substances you can put in your body. Food and Nutrition notes that added sugar, whether it’s called high fructose corn syrup or any of the other 60 or so monikers given to such ingredients, are at the bottom of a variety of health problems:
“‘Added sugars,’ ranging from controversial high-fructose corn syrup to more than 60 ingredients identified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are introduced into foods and beverages by manufacturers during processing or by consumers at the table. And added sugars account for an average of 16 percent of total calories in American diets.”9
There are other problems associated with fruit juice that you should be aware of, however. Sugar added to food and drink is bad, but artificial sugar is even worse, and multiple studies spell it out very clearly. Research published in the Journal of Hematology reports that fructose, specifically “industrial” sugar, is a risk factor for metabolic alterations and worsened liver fibrosis in patients with chronic hepatitis.10
In addition, “Although 100 percent fruit juices contain only natural sugars, the human body does not biochemically differentiate between natural and added sugars … In fact, some juices contain as much sugar as sodas.”11
Fruit Juice: The ‘Evil Twin’ of Soda
It’s true: Some fruit juices contain as much sugar as sodas. Why is that a problem? Soda consumption can be blamed for causing 183,000 deaths worldwide on an annual basis, scientists reveal, most notably from diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
You may assume that drinking a single 8-ounce serving wouldn’t cause much harm, but one study shows even that amount can elevate your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by 18 percent.12
Drinking soda causes dehydration and raises markers for kidney disease, aka acute kidney injury (AKI), when consumed after exertion or exercise in temperatures hovering around the high double digits.13 Interestingly, the research volunteers were an average age of 24, and the symptoms they experienced affected their uric acid levels (known to exacerbate and/or cause gout symptoms).14 ABC News notes:
“The association was not limited to soft drinks, though — orange juice also appeared to be a risk factor for incident gout … Women who said they drank it once daily were at 41 percent higher risk for a gout diagnosis, rising to 142 percent with twice-daily consumption.”15
For Kids and Adults: Other Health Problems Related to Fruit Juice Consumption
Nursing bottle caries, which cause serious tooth decay and disintegration, is a common problem in children given fruit juice in bottles, especially since bottles are often used by young children as stand-ins for pacifiers (which causes the related problem of prolonged bottle feeding). Further:
“Nonspecific chronic diarrhea or ‘toddlers’ diarrhea has been associated with juice consumption, especially juices high in sorbitol and those with a high fructose to glucose ratio.
This relates to carbohydrate malabsorption, which varies by the type, concentration, and mixture of sugars present in different fruit juices. Fruit juice consumption by preschoolers has recently increased from 3.2 to about 5.5 fluid ounces per day.”16
In spite of the American Academy of Pediatrics’17 recommendation to limit the amounts of juice given to children, mainly because it contains lots of sugar — and to give no fruit juice at all to children under age 1 — most parents in the U.S. still give their kids juice to drink, NBC Los Angeles said, quoting Consumer Reports.18
What’s Being Done? What Can You Do?
It’s encouraging to know that some governmental and commercial entities are interested in alleviating the problem of heavy metals in fruit juices, as well as other consumer products. In fact, Consumer Reports allows that many of the fruit juices they tested showed improvement. For instance, in 2011, 29 percent of the juices testing at below 1 part per billion (ppb) for lead, compared with 53 percent in 2018.
In 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reportedly proposed limiting inorganic arsenic in apple juice to the same limits placed on drinking water, which is 10 ppb, the federal arsenic standard. However, Consumer Reports asserts that while the FDA had previously said their limit would be established by the end of 2018, it’s still not in place.
Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumer Reports, has encouraged the FDA to finalize the limit on inorganic arsenic in apple juice as quickly as possible.
It should be noted that “Trader Joe’s Fresh Pressed Apple Juice” was the only product above the FDA’s proposed 10 ppb limit for inorganic arsenic, with the three samples tested averaging 15.4 ppb. When asked about those results, a Trader Joe’s spokesperson said, “We will investigate your findings, as we are always ready to take whatever action is necessary to ensure the safety and quality of our products.”19
Even if you realize you’ve raised your risk of heavy metal-related health damage by consuming fruit juice for long periods, even years, it’s not too late to change. “The risk comes from chronic exposure,” Dickerson emphasizes. “Minimizing consumption of juices and other foods that have heavy metals can reduce the chance of negative outcomes in the future.”20
In addition, NBC Los Angeles says, “It’s really important to make sure that you feed your children a broad variety of fruits, vegetables and other whole foods to ensure that you minimize your exposure.”21