Most of the apples used in typical brands of apple juice are grown in China. The Asian powerhouse is by far the world’s largest supplier of apple juice concentrate, with anywhere from 70% to 80% of the concentrate used in the juice being imported from China.
In 2013, Bloomberg reported that the juice of rotten Chinese apples was being exported. The news was broken by the 21st Century Business Herald (the Chinese government closed down their web site in April). They sent reporters to a region of the country known for its fruit groves and fruit-juice manufacturers. They found three of China’s leading juice manufacturers purchasing rotten apples and pears from farmers unable to sell them for direct human consumption. The Chinese government shut down two of the plants in question.
The Bloomberg story noted: “The primary health risk in rotten apples is the persistence of a toxic mold. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is so unconcerned about this possibility that it allows domestic apple processors to establish voluntary controls to monitor the mold.”
And then there’s the arsenic problem. Findings of a Consumer Reports investigation about arsenic and lead levels in apple juice and grape juice prompted the organization to call for government standards to limit consumers’ exposure to these toxins.
“The tests of 88 samples of apple juice and grape juice purchased in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut by Consumer Reports staffers found that 10 percent of those samples had total arsenic levels exceeding federal drinking-water standards of 10 parts per billion (ppb) and 25 percent had lead levels higher than the 5 ppb limit for bottled water set by the Food and Drug Administration. Most of the arsenic detected in our tests was the type called inorganic, which is a human carcinogen.
“Consumer Reports also found mounting scientific evidence suggesting that chronic exposure to arsenic and lead even at levels below federal standards for water can result in serious health problems, especially for those who are exposed in the womb or during early childhood. FDA data and other research reveal that arsenic has been detected at disturbing levels in other foods as well.
In response, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed an “action level” of 10 parts per billion (ppb) for inorganic arsenic in apple juice.
An earlier report by the St. Petersburg Times in 2010 had found similar elevated levels. More than a quarter of the 18 samples tested contained between 25 and 35 parts per billion of arsenic.
“Kids tend to drink a lot of juice, and we tend to give them a lot of juice because we think it’s a healthy snack,” said Joshua Hamilton, a toxicologist with the federally funded Dartmouth Toxic Metals Research Program. “So there would be some irony if we were then exposing them to higher levels than an adult would get in bottled water, which I think everyone expects to be safe.”
Samples from three brands — Motts, Apple & Eve Organics, and Walmart’s Great Value label — contained between 25 and 35 ppb of arsenic, above the FDA’s level of concern. The brands Nestle’s Juicy Juice, Minute Maid, Tree Top and Target’s Market Pantry contained between 12 and 24 ppb. One sample of Walmart’s juice contained no arsenic, and one Nestle’s sample tested at nearly undetectable levels.
“Really, there’s no safe level of arsenic exposure for a kid,” said Richard Wiles of the Environmental Working Group. “And it certainly shouldn’t be in these juices.”
Experts believe the use of arsenic-based pesticides may be contributing to elevated levels of arsenic in some juices. Arsenic also occurs naturally in air, water and soil, and is present in other foods.
Consumer Reports recommends setting a limit of 3 ppb of total arsenic for apple juice. They suggest limiting children’s consumption of apple and grape juice. Children up to age 6 should have no more than 4 to 6 ounces a day.
According to Christina Science Monitor, “When Chinese apple juice concentrate entered the US market, the price of concentrate collapsed from $153 per ton in 1995 to $55 per ton in 1998. American farmers struggled to compete. Some sold their farms; others went bankrupt.
One Washington state juice producer, Tree Top, avoids Chinese juice. “We have not imported juice (fruit) concentrates in more than two years due to the availability of U.S. processor grade fruit for making juice concentrate,” said Sharon Miracle-Harris, Tree Top corporate communications director. The company decided in 2008 to only use U.S. apples “in order to meet our consumers’ preferences.”