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Does apple juice have unsafe levels of arsenic?

By Deborah Kotz
Globe Staff / September 14, 2011

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See what's coming up next on The Dr. Oz Show.

The US Food and Drug Administration took the unusual step of issuing a statement that apple juice is safe, ahead of a TV talk show set to air today that will claim high levels of arsenic were found in some apple juice brands. The cable health show --hosted by Oprah fave Dr. Mehmet Oz -- will warn viewers about what it says are dangerous amounts of arsenic lurking in some innocent-looking apple juice brands, including one plastered with the Gerber baby.

“As a doctor and a parent, it’s concerning to me that there could be toxins such as arsenic in juice we are giving to our kids,” said Oz in a press statement. While acknowledging that arsenic poisoning from apple juice hasn’t been documented, Oz cranked up the fear factor when he added, “arsenic is a substance that shouldn’t be in food and could be associated with various public health problems such as cancer.”

Certainly, we don’t want the substance in our food -- unless we’re feeding it to rats -- but the FDA said in a statement that “small amounts of arsenic can be found in certain food and beverage products, including fruit juices and juice concentrates” and that “there is no evidence of any public health risk from drinking these juices.”

In fact, the FDA has been testing such products for years to make sure they don’t fall above the allowable levels of 23 parts per billion. If they do, the agency re-tests the product to see how much inorganic arsenic it contains.

“Inorganic arsenic is the harmful kind, so just like with cholesterol, getting a measurement of total arsenic doesn’t say very much,” said registered dietician Joan Salge Blake, an associate professor of nutrition at Boston University.

Oz argues that the levels of arsenic in apple juice should be set at 10 parts per billion, the maximum allowable level in drinking water. The show hired EMSL Analytical, Inc to test 36 samples of apple juice purchased in different cities and found that 10 of the products exceeded the 10 parts per billion limit and one reached a level of 36 parts per billion.

In a September 9 letter to the show’s producers, the FDA said, “it would be irresponsible and misleading for The Dr. Oz Show to suggest that apple juice contains unsafe amounts of arsenic based solely on tests for total arsenic.” In another letter dated two days later, the FDA said it tested the Gerber apple juice product that was found by the Oz show to contain the highest amount of arsenic and in all seven samples found arsenic levels that ranged from 2 parts per billion to 6 parts per billion.

“Based on our investigation and testing,” FDA senior science advisor Don Zink wrote, “we are concerned that some of the results reported to you by EMSL Analytical, Inc., may be erroneously high.”

Whether Oz or the FDA is correct probably doesn’t matter all that much since the two are quibbling over minute differences in very low levels of arsenic.

Instead, Blake said, we should focus on the bigger picture: “Children shouldn’t be drinking that much apple juice to begin with, certainly not to the extent that it replaces milk in their diet.” And a whole piece of fruit -- with all its fiber and nutrient-filled skin and pulp -- is far better for us than the high-caloric juice that’s made from it.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.

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