Fruit juice has been falling out of favor for its high sugar content and low nutritional value. Now parents have another reason to pull the plug: heavy metals.
According to a study released Wednesday by Consumer Reports, measurable levels of cadmium, inorganic arsenic, mercury or lead were found in every single one of the 45 juice products it tested from major brands sold across the U.S. Almost half of the juices had metal levels so high they were deemed “concerning,” with seven of the products posting heavy metal concentrations high enough to harm children who drink as little as 4 ounces -- about half a cup -- a day.
"The risks we assessed were all due to chronic exposure -- persistent, daily intake over an extended period of time," James Dickerson, Consumer Reports' chief scientific officer, said in an interview. Whether you're an adult or a child, "it's a good idea to try to reduce the amount of non-refrigerated, ready to drink juice."
To be fair, it would be impossible to remove all heavy metals from food and drinks, since some can occur naturally, Dickerson said. Toxins can find their way into foods through water, air and soil, or they can be added unintentionally at manufacturing plants or in product packaging. In some of the juices tested, the level of a single metal wasn't concerning, but combined, they could have an adverse effect on children's developing brain and nervous systems, the report said.
Organic juice, or juice marketed for children, isn't necessarily safer: Neither group performed any better than other juices, Consumer Reports found. In general, grape juice and juice blends had the highest average heavy metal levels, the report said.
Certain juices from Minute Maid, R.W. Knudsen, Gerber, Welch's, Mott's and Juicy Juice were listed as potentially risky at either a cup or half cup a day. Some in-house juice brands from Trader Joe's, Walmart, CVS Health Corp. and Whole Foods were also found to be potentially harmful, although some of these same companies -- including Whole Foods, Juicy Juice, Gerber, Minute Maid and Mott's -- also had juices listed on the "better alternatives" list.
"All Welch's juice is safe and strictly complies with all food safety regulations for juice -- in the United States and in other countries around the world," Jackie Lee, senior manager of brand engagement for Welch's, said in an email. "Naturally occurring elements such as lead and arsenic are present in the soil, air and water. Therefore, they are also found in very low, harmless levels in many fruits and vegetables. Ongoing third-party testing shows that heavy metals in our products are far below federal limits."
Gerber, owned by Nestle, said it uses "some of the most precise analytical equipment and test methods available" to carry out regular tests. The company works with farmers to reduce and limit contaminants, and its juices "meet our rigorous safety and quality standards, which are based on the latest food safety guidance from sources like the Food and Drug Administration and international health authorities," the company said in an emailed statement. Gerber said it doesn't sell products that don't comply with its safety standards.
The other companies did not respond to requests for comment. The Juice Products Association, a trade group representing the industry, said it hasn't received a copy of the study from Consumer Reports, making it impossible to respond to specific findings.
"Juice producers make safety a priority 365-days-a-year, and believe the concerns cited by Consumer Reports' intermittent testing of selected products are unfounded. Consumers can be assured that juice is safe," the association said in an emailed statement. "Regardless of where the ingredients are sourced or where the juice is processed, all juice producers are required to manufacture products that comply with FDA regulations."
That's part of the problem, according to Consumer Reports: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn't have a proposed limit for cadmium in juice and hasn't finalized the one it's proposed for inorganic arsenic in apple juice. Consumer Reports also says the FDA's guideline for lead is too high. The FDA didn't immediately reply to a request for comment.
In general, juice consumption has gone down in the U.S., but companies have had a hard time developing substitutes to juice that kids want to drink. Juice has a lot of sugar, and almost none of the beneficial fiber that whole or frozen fruit contain.
“It’s important for families to remember that the beverage kids need the most is water,” said Dr. Steven Abrams, the chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition.