Last week, Consumer Reports published findings from their test of 45 popular fruit juices such as apple, grape, pear and fruit blends, indicating that half of them were contaminated with elements that are known as heavy metals.[1] Heavy metals that are particularly concerning for a person’s health include lead, mercury, inorganic arsenic, and cadmium. Reports published in the last ten years demonstrate that heavy metals are present in many foods, with levels varying from brand to brand. In addition to toxic levels in fruit juice, there are also concerns with baby food, water, rice, plant-based protein powders, and more.  As you can see, heavy metals are present in plenty of nutritious foods, making it seem it difficult to know which foods you can trust. So let’s break this down a little further to help you understand which foods are the most common culprits of heavy metals and reduce any food fears or confusion.

High Doses of Heavy Metals Can be Toxic

In small doses, heavy metals can be harmless—if not beneficial in terms of metals like iron—but in higher doses they can be toxic. This is especially true for people that have genetic variants in their DNA that contribute to sub-optimal detoxification and elimination of these compounds. Since the beginning of time, metals have been released into the environment through natural processes like soil weathering, wind and water erosion, and volcanic activity, but levels present in the environment skyrocketed with the industrial revolution.[2] At the time, people were not aware of the harmful effects of these metals, and thus, regulations were very lax, leading to practices that dumped elements into the environment. While there is more awareness regarding the health risks of heavy metal exposure in the 21st century, heavy metals are still present in the food and water supply, in addition to hair-coloring products, cosmetics, dental fillings, and more.[3]

Metals can accumulate in the body, with most being stored in fat tissue, the exception being lead which is stored in bone. If they build up at faster rates than the body can process, they can cause a high toxic burden on the body. Symptoms of heavy metal toxicity typically begin with general malaise, behavioral problems, weight gain and more. But it doesn’t stop there. Heavy metal toxicity causes oxidative damage, increasing free radicals in the body that can damage parts of your cells, including DNA.[4] Over time, high levels can lead to serious health issues such as an increased risk of certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s Disease. See below for a chart containing the four major heavy metals, and the conditions to which they have been linked to in research.

Common Conditions Associated with Metals

Metal Associated Health Conditions
Arsenic[5] Cardiovascular disease
Cancer
Skin lesions
Type 2 diabetes
Decreased cognitive development
Cadmium[6] Risk of bone damage
Certain cancers
Lung disease
Kidney disease
Lead[7] High blood pressure
Heart disease
Kidney disease
Fertility issues
Neurological damage
Mercury[8] Neurological damage
Damage to nervous system
Impaired digestive and immune systems
Kidney disease

Common additional symptoms that may be associated with heavy metal exposure are listed below.

  • Full body and joint pain
  • Anxiety and mood disorders that have a gradual onset
  • Chronic headaches and migraines
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Digestive issues
  • Reproductive issues
  • Insomnia
  • Worsening autoimmune conditions
  • Visual disturbances

If you are worried that heavy metal toxicity may be contributing to unexplained symptoms, find a functional medicine doctor or other physician who is able to run a blood test for you. My dietitian team at N1 Nutrition looks at acute exposures to lead, mercury, etc. in the blood and other markers of detox function. If you simply want to learn how to mitigate your exposure, see below for the list of top offending foods and how to lower the risks associated with consuming each.

Fruit Juice [9]

The recent Consumer Reports article exposed common juices such as apple, grape, pear, and fruit blends as being high in a variety of different heavy metals. Of the forty-five brands tested, all had some heavy metals and half had levels that were considered dangerous for consumption. Both organic and conventional juices showed these levels, meaning that there wasn’t any benefit in choosing organic products to reduce heavy metal load. Most alarmingly, the products tested were typically juices that were marketed to kids, a group that is particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of metal toxicity since it interferes with healthy development and may have cognitive implications.

Fruit juices tend have high levels of heavy metals because metals that are released into the environment are absorbed into the soil, water, and air surrounding the fruit crops. As the crops grow, they absorb these metals, integrating the elements into their makeup. Furthermore, the vast majority of apples in the United States are imported from other countries. These countries don’t have as strict of laws in regulating exposure to metals as the United States, thus increasing the amount present in the food that they export.

Tip: To reduce your exposure to metals in fruit juice, try to significantly limit your consumption. Children should have no more than 4 fl oz of fruit juice, due to the risk of heavy metals and also the blood sugar impact of drinking such a concentrated source of sugar.  

Fish [10]

When people hear the word mercury, the first thing they think of is tuna—and for good reason. Large fish, such as ahi tuna and swordfish, tend to be high in mercury. These elevated levels are due to the fact that large bodies of water trap metals such as mercury once they are released into the environment. Coal burning appears to be a large contributor to this issue, releasing harmful metals into the environment that ultimately settle into the water. While you might assume that all fish would be equally affected by this phenomenon, larger fish tend to bear the brunt of the problem due to a process called biomagnification. Though all fish absorb the metals that are introduced into their environment, larger fish acquire these metals from both their environment and the fish on which they prey. Therefore, the higher up on the food chain, the higher levels of mercury present in the fish.

Tip: To avoid these high levels of mercury, stick to eating smaller fish such as scallops, anchovies, oysters, shrimp, trout, and sardines, and limit your intake of tuna, swordfish, orange roughy, grouper, and king mackerel to no more than once a week. Wild salmon is also another safe choice. Checkout the Natural Resource Defense Council’s chart (linked at the bottom) for an incredibly helpful seafood buying guide.[11]

Water [12]

Water has been on the forefront of heavy metal news as issues like the Flint water crisis pop up around the country. In other words, it might be time to revisit that question of whether a water filter is actually worth it. A USA Today report found that 2,000 communities across the United States had elevated lead levels in their water, while another test found that 3,000 communities had double the amount of lead as was found in the water from Flint.[13][14] Water can be contaminated with heavy metals for a few reasons, and your exposure will depend on where you live. Those who live in rural areas tend to have water that comes from private wells which is often tested with less frequency than water from treatment plants, potentially leading to heavy metal exposure. However, while those in cities tend to get water from treatment plants, many buildings in these cities have outdated plumbing, equipped with lead pipes. These pipes rust over time, corroding and releasing metals into your water.

Tip: While these facts might seem scary, you can take action and reduce your risk of metal exposure via your water. First, refer to EWG’s Tap Water Database and enter your zip code to find out about which metals are prevalent in your water.[15] You can take it a step further and get your water tested for metals. If they appear to be elevated, then you’ll want to contact your local health agency. Furthermore, I’d highly recommend investing in a water filtration system that can clear out toxic levels of metals. This one is on the more expensive side but may be worth the investment.[16]

Rice[17] [18]

This seemingly innocuous food often contains levels of arsenic much higher than is safe for regular consumption. Rice is a very absorbent crop, even more so than other plants, and therefore is very good at absorbing arsenic that comes from irrigation water, soil, and even the water used to cook rice. The type of rice that you purchase matters when it comes to arsenic levels, which are highest in brown rice, lowest in basmati rice and in the middle for white rice. While brown rice has higher levels of arsenic, it is a whole grain that includes the intact fiber which is not found in white rice. See below for tips on decreasing arsenic exposure if purchasing brown rice. Other factors to consider include where the rice was grown. Rice from California, India, and Pakistan tend to have lower arsenic content, while rice from Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana have some of the highest levels.[19]

Tip: Soaking your rice overnight, rinsing, and cooking it with excess water will limit the amount of arsenic that ends up in your final cooked product. Finally, many processed rice snacks such as rice cakes and rice milk tend to have some of the highest levels of arsenic, so be sure to swap these for other alternatives from different grains and nuts. This is especially important to keep in mind for those that adhere to a gluten-free diet, as many gluten-free products are derived from rice flours, syrup, etc. Other gluten-free grains that were found to have lower levels of arsenic include quinoa, buckwheat, and basmati rice.

Unfortunately, heavy metals are found in many foods and products that you use in your everyday life. While it is impossible to avoid exposure as a whole, limiting the above foods can be a great first step in minimizing your exposure. Though heavy metals can be detrimental to everyone’s health, pregnant women and children need to be incredibly careful about exposure since metals interfere with proper development. Stay tuned for my next article on how to help your body detoxify from heavy metal toxicity.

Jamie Foti contributed to this article.


[1] https://www.consumerreports.org/food-safety/arsenic-and-lead-are-in-your-fruit-juice-what-you-need-to-know/

[2] https://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/sources-of-exposure/drinking-water

[3] https://www.consumerreports.org/lead/removing-lead-acetate-from-hair-dye/

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28643849

[5] https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/arsenic

[6] https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/cadmium/healtheffects.html

[7] https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/lead/health.html

[8] https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mercury-and-health

[9] https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2019/01/30/fruit-juices-may-have-harmful-levels-lead-arsenic-consumer-reports-study-finds/2719282002/

[10] https://www.nrdc.org/stories/smart-seafood-buying-guide

[11] https://www.nrdc.org/stories/smart-seafood-buying-guide

[12] https://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/sources-of-exposure/drinking-water

[13] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2016/03/17/drinking-water-lead-schools-day-cares/81220916/

[14] https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-lead-testing/#interactive-lead

[15] https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/

[16] https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MDLMBKC?tag=wwwewgorg-20

[17] https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/arsenic-in-rice#section6

[18] https://www.fda.gov/food/foodborneillnesscontaminants/metals/ucm319948.htm

[19] https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2015/01/how-much-arsenic-is-in-your-rice/index.htm