In 2011, there was much to do about arsenic in apple juice. A “Dr. Oz Show” report said that unsafe levels of arsenic were found in apple juice tested. The unsafe levels were based on the levels that the EPA finds acceptable in drinking water, not apple juice. At the time, there were no regulations on arsenic in apple juice. After public concern over the findings, the FDA regulated arsenic in apple juice in 2013. 

The EPA also does not currently have regulations on the amount of arsenic that can be in wine. However, a lawsuit filed this week in California claims that many inexpensive wines have very high levels of the chemical element, according to CBS News. As with apple juice, the conclusion that the levels of arsenic in wine are unsafe is also based on the EPA regulations for arsenic in drinking water.

The wines mentioned in the lawsuit were analyzed at Denver’s BeverageGrades laboratories, an independent lab run by Kevin Hicks who was formerly in the wine distribution business. He analyzed more than 1,300 bottles of wine and found that “almost a quarter of them had levels higher than the EPA's maximum allowable amount of arsenic in drinking water: 10 parts per billion.” The less expensive the wine, the more likely they were to have higher levels of arsenic.

Time reports these findings from the independent testing.

  • Trader Joe’s Two-Buck Chuck White Zinfandel had three times the amount of arsenic than is legal for drinking water.
  • Ménage à Trois Moscato had four times the amount of arsenic than is legal for drinking water.
  • Franzia White Grenache had five times the amount of arsenic than is legal for drinking water.
What does this mean for wine drinkers? It’s hard to say. The legal limits for drinking water are based on how much water people drink. If there were a legal limit for wine, it may be higher than the legal limit for drinking water because people drink less wine than water.

Also, as many of us learned after Dr. Oz’s apple juice report, there are two types of arsenic that can be found in food and beverages. The wine tests don’t seem to differentiate whether the arsenic found in the wines is organic, inorganic or a combination of both. When I was researching arsenic for the apple juice story, this is what I learned.

Natural arsenic is found in everything from water to air to apples, and is referred to as "organic arsenic." The FDA says organic arsenic is not harmful. Arsenic that's added from chemicals like pesticides is not natural and is referred to as "inorganic arsenic." High levels of it can be harmful, even fatal.
While there may be levels of arsenic found in some wines that is higher than the legal limit for drinking water, we haven’t been told what kind of arsenic is in those wines.

For now, it's good to be aware that some wines are high in arsenic, but it doesn’t seem a reason to freak out. CBS News ran its own independent tests on four of the wines named in the lawsuit. The labs they used found “arsenic levels were all considerably lower than BeverageGrades' results.” Much more testing needs to be done to get consistent, accurate numbers.

If the lawsuit filed in California proceeds, more, hopefully accurate, information should come out. 

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Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.