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Arsenic in apple juice? Dr. Oz says it but should you be freaking out?

This week, “The Dr. Oz Show” is saving all of us from an untimely death by warning us that there is arsenic in apple juice, as well as a bunch of other food products, contains high levels of arsenic. Oh, you didn’t know? Please panic now. AHHH!!! MASS HYSTERIA!! Now that you’ve gotten that out of your system, let’s discuss why you would be better off directing your concern to something more important, like finding a better TV show to watch.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, in a completely rational, calm and definitely not over-sensationalized way, stated that the arsenic-in-apple-juice study would be “the most shocking investigation in Dr. Oz show history!” He didn’t actually use an exclamation mark. But hey, why not?

The show used “an independent lab for sophisticated, state-of-the-art testing” to study 36 samples of apple juice from five different brands across three different American cities, and compared the levels of arsenic to the standard for water. “The Dr. Oz Show” explained on its website that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s limit for the level of arsenic in water is 10 parts per billion, or ppb. “Currently, there is no limit on arsenic in apple juice,” the website stated. The show published the full report on its website, so let’s check out the findings:


Minute Maid Apple Juice

  • Lowest sample for arsenic: 2 parts per billion
  • Highest sample for arsenic: 3 parts per billion


Apple and Eve apple juice

  • Lowest sample for arsenic: 3 parts per billion
  • Highest sample for arsenic: 11 parts per billion


Mott’s

  • Lowest sample for arsenic: 4 parts per billion
  • Highest sample for arsenic: 16 parts per billion


Juicy Juice

  • Lowest sample for arsenic: 2 parts per billion
  • Highest sample for arsenic: 22 parts per billion


Gerber

  • Lowest sample for arsenic: 3 parts per billion
  • Highest sample for arsenic: 36 parts per billion

 

The website stated that apple juice is also used to sweeten candy, cereals, snack bars and more, and “in just one type of juice, there can be apple concentrate from up to seven countries.” And, according to Dr. Oz, arsenic is not always regulated in those countries, so, yes, we should be freaking out. “It is unacceptable that a toxic chemical like arsenic is allowed to contaminate our food and drink, and we all need to demand higher standards of protection for our families.”

Thank you, Dr. Oz! What would we do if it weren’t for sensationalized talk show hosts with medical degrees? I suppose we would rely on the Food and Drug Administration, whose job it is to actually regulate these things. Before the show aired, the FDA went and collected a sample of the same lot of Nestle/Gerber apple juice; the highest arsenic level it found was 6 ppb, and the lowest was 2 ppb. Nestle also conducted its own studies on its Gerber and Juicy Juice brands (and noted that two other independent laboratories also conducted studies) after Dr. Oz’s study was released and found the levels of arsenic to be “significantly lower than those reported by Dr. Oz.” Mott’s did the same thing, with results indicating safe levels.

In one (of two) letters to the producers of the show, the FDA stated that the results of the tests done by the FDA “do not indicate that apple juice contains unsafe amounts of arsenic. The FDA reaffirms its belief, as stated in our Sept. 9, 2011, letter, that it would be irresponsible and misleading for ‘The Dr. Oz Show’ to suggest that apple juice is unsafe based on tests for total arsenic.”

So, who’s wrong here? Well, let’s start with a little arsenic review. First of all, arsenic can naturally enter the environment from rocks, soil, water, air, plants and animals, or as a result of such human activities as coal burning, copper smelting and mineral ore processing. Secondly, there are two types of arsenic: organic and inorganic arsenic. Certain levels of inorganic arsenic are toxic, but organic arsenic is harmless. The “Dr. Oz Show” website falsely stated that “currently there is no limit on arsenic in apple juice.” In fact, the FDA has a “level of concern” at 23 parts per billion for the presence of INORGANIC arsenic in apple juice.

This leads us to the biggest problem with Dr. Oz’s investigation: The show did not use the FDA’s approved test method for fruit juices. Testing for overall arsenic without differentiating organic from inorganic, which is what the show did, produces results of levels most likely composed of both organic and inorganic — so some potentially harmful and some not. Meanwhile, the show is presenting its findings as if the total content is harmful.

The FDA explained that it typically tests juice samples for total arsenic first, “because this test is rapid, accurate and cost-effective. When total arsenic testing shows that a fruit juice sample has total arsenic in an amount greater than 23 ppb, we re-test the sample for its inorganic arsenic content.”

Dr. Oz’s second mistake: comparing apples to oranges. The show presented the findings in comparison to the levels of arsenic in water, which is limited to 10 ppb. Regulatory agencies have set this threshold based on the amount of water consumed daily by the average adult: 2 liters. U.S. consumption of 100% fruit juice is just under 4 oz. per person daily. Therefore, the limit on arsenic level for juice is set higher, to 23 ppb.

Dr. Gail Charley, a toxicologist for the Juice Products Association, stated that “not only are the results based upon the wrong test method, [but also] to compare the trace levels of arsenic in apple juice to the regulatory guidelines for drinking water is not appropriate.”

“The Dr. Oz Show” also pointed to imported juice products as being the issue, since other countries don’t regulate arsenic content the same way the U.S. does. However, as the JPA stated, all food and beverage products sold in the U.S., both foreign and domestically produced, must meet the same FDA food safety guidelines and must comply with the Juice HACCP regulation. “The juice industry routinely performs analytical testing to ensure the safety of domestic and imported ingredients and finished goods,” JPA said.

Are we all calm now? Everyone’s blood pressure back to a healthy level? Good. Apples contain plenty of healthful antioxidants, and research suggests that apples may reduce the risk of colon cancer, prostate cancer and lung cancer. So don’t worry: An apple a day still keeps the doctor away, though unfortunately it doesn’t keep doctors from freaking out parents nationwide by presenting inaccurate information on TV.

 

UPDATE: Dr. Oz went on ABC News Thursday morning and spoke with a very irritated Dr. Richard Besser, the ABC News medical editor and formerly acting director of the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. He called Dr. Oz’s episode on arsenic levels in juice “extremely irresponsible fearmongering.” Click here to watch.

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