The juice industry needs to be aware of the risk of lead

The juice industry needs to be aware of the risk of lead

Lead is an insidious poison; there is no such thing as a 'safe' level of lead in the blood, and even small amounts can lower IQ and cause behavioural problems. These realities are why lead was removed from gasoline and paint decades ago. But, what about fruit juice? Disturbing new research from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in the US reveals that lead is much more common in foods like fruit juice than consumers may realise. The research gives fruit juice producers something to think about.

The Environmental Defense Fund has a message for juice makers: Get the lead out. Identifying lead in food as a hidden health threat, the organisation recently released the results of an examination of 11 years of testing data from the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and its Total Diet Study (TDS), which measures the presence of metals, pesticides, and nutrients in food and beverage products. The research on food and drink samples collected from 2003 to 2013 found that fruit juices were at the top of the lead-rich food list, with root vegetables not far behind.

The EDF's research focused on baby foods, given the tendency of even very low levels of lead in the blood to cause problems for a child's developing brain. The research found detectable levels of lead in 89% of grape juice, 67% of mixed fruit, 55% of apple juice, and 45% of pear baby food juice samples that were tested. Lead levels were actually higher for juices aimed at babies than for other juices. For grape juice, 89% of baby food samples of juice had detectable levels of lead versus 68% of samples of all grape juices tested; for apple juice, 55% of baby food juice samples had detectable levels of lead versus 25% of all apple juices tested.

For testing purposes, the "limit of detection" is defined as the lowest level at which the FDA is confident that a chemical, such as lead, is present. For fruit juice, the limit of detection is 4 parts per billion (ppb); to put that into perspective, EDF testing found that the highest lead concentrations for tested juices to be 29 ppb for an apple juice sample, 23 ppb for a mixed juice sample, and 20 ppb for a grape juice sample. The FDA does have lead limits for some juices, including a limit of 50 ppb for juices from berries or other small fruits including grapes, and 30 ppb for other fruit juices and nectars including apple juice. Bottled water, though, has a lead limit of 5 ppb, according to the FDA's Standard of Quality (SOQ). Packaged water products that exceed this level can be removed from the market.

Lead can get into fruit juice in a number of different ways, though the FDA believes that soil contamination is likely the most common route. Lead itself can come from many sources including lead paint, leaded gasoline, and food handling equipment, as well as lead arsenate pesticides that may have once been used in agriculture. Once in the soil, lead does not just go away; it can be blown around by the wind or can come into contact with food sources like fruits or vegetables. Root vegetables may be especially prone to contamination, since lead has a tendency to bind to the skin of root vegetables like carrots or sweet potatoes, and is not easily removed by cleaning or scrubbing. Herbs and leafy greens may be even more susceptible to lead contamination, according to a 2014 study of concentrations of heavy metals in urban garden-grown vegetables by a team of researchers from Cornell University.

The lead issue may eventually weigh down on fruit juice

All of this adds up to potential issues for fruit juices, and possibly even vegetable juices. Fruit juice is already under fire from the American Academy of Pediatrics' new recommendation that children wait to be introduced to juice until they are at least one year old, due to worries over sugar levels. Lead worries are probably the last thing the industry needs right now and may be easy to dismiss, but the lead issue may eventually weigh down on fruit juice. One reason the EDF chose to focus its research on fruit juice is the growing concern that soluble lead may pose a greater threat to health than particulate lead, because the former is said to be more easily absorbed by the body.

This is not the first study to make the lead-juice connection. In 2012, Consumers Union – the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports magazine – urged the FDA to set standards for lead (as well as for arsenic) in apple and grape juices. Testing 88 samples of apple juice and grape juice products purchased in the New York metro area, Consumer Reports found that one in four juice samples had lead levels higher than the FDA's bottled water limit of 5 ppb. At the time, the magazine noted that children were prodigious drinkers of fruit juice, with 45% of children between three and five consuming more than the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation of no more than 6oz of juice per day for kids younger than six, according to an October 2011 consumer survey.

If the lead issue does gain traction with consumers, fruit juice may not be the only affected category. Root vegetables have become popular additions to many juices and are also trending in categories like snacks where sweet potatoes, beets, and even carrots are driving new product innovation. Consumers currently view root vegetables in a very positive light: According to a Q1 2017 GlobalData survey, 64% of consumers globally think that beets have a positive impact on health. In contrast, 56% of consumers say that kale has a positive impact on health. How would these percentages change if consumers began to link root vegetables to lead contamination? In its testing, the EDF found detectable levels of lead in 43% of carrot baby food samples tested.

From a marketing perspective, lead has the potential to put the industry in a bind. It may not be possible to market a juice as entirely free of lead, though from a consumer perspective it would be valuable to know what juice producers are doing about the issue and to what extent testing is done. Any response is likely to be nuanced, since providing consumer-facing information on lead levels could backfire by promoting the lead-juice connection in the mind of the consumer.

Taking a 'wait-and-see' attitude and reacting to new government rules has its own risks. The FDA's maximum dietary intake level of six micrograms of lead was set way back in 1993 (light years ago, given the rapid pace of medical science), a level the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates is currently exceeded by over 5% of children aged between two and six in the US. The odds are good that the FDA will reduce its "maximum dietary intake level" of lead in the near future (the organisation is already said to be reevaluating its lead in juice limits) and that number is almost certain to drop.

It remains to be seen how juice producers might react to this development, but it is not too late for the industry to get ahead of the issue.