Blog | Friday, October 28, 2011

Arsenic in your apple juice is safer than Dr. Oz in your education

There's arsenic in apple juice, and I just poured my daughter a big glass. Go ahead, call Child Protective Services.

On his show last week Dr. Oz tried to scare us about arsenic in apple juice. It was a feat of ratings-driven fear-mongering that was shameful even by daytime TV standards. His show tested various brands of apple juice for arsenic, announced that the levels were too high, and concluded that we should all be worried.

Sunlight on natural apple juice by AdamKR via Flickr and a Creative Commons licenseActually, he conducted the wrong kind of test and misinterpreted the results. (If you're interested in the scientific details, this scathing article in Forbes has a great review.) Dr. Oz was widely criticized, including by other physicians. The FDA released a very reasoned update reminding us that apple juice is safe. The FDA regularly tests apple juice for arsenic and has been doing so for years. So Dr. Oz was forced to back-pedal and reassure us that he's not worried about drinking apple juice. Phew! That's a relief.

This week Dr. Oz published an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune explaining that he was simply trying to "raise an alarm" about food safety and that "we need more stringent restrictions on arsenic in fruit juice."

Huh? He said he has no concerns about the safety of juice. There's no evidence that arsenic levels in juices (or in any other food or beverage) are dangerous and no evidence that anyone is getting arsenic toxicity from their diet. Other than that, he has a good point, or at least a very popular show.

But why did his ploy work? Why did he get so much attention? Why didn't the couple of million people (!) who watch his show search the CDC or FDA websites about arsenic, yawn slowly, and move on to a different subject? Why didn't they discover on their own that the scariest thing about apple juice is the calories? Overweight people shouldn't touch the stuff. After decades of drinking fruit juices daily they might suffer the complications of diabetes, but they would still have no effects from the arsenic.

Why would we take the word of a TV entertainer and thoracic surgeon about food safety instead of the opinion of people with PhDs in biochemistry who spend their careers keeping food safe? Like me, Dr. Oz last studied biochemistry as an undergraduate. The only thing his training prepares him to answer about apple juice is, "How long before my heart surgery can I have anything to drink?"

For better or for worse, we're hard-wired to pay attention to scary stuff. So a reasoned explanation that everything is OK will never get as much attention as a bogus warning that you're poisoning your children. As an open society we are being challenged to learn to give credibility to those who have earned it and ignore those who have abused our trust. Can we do it?

Albert Fuchs, MD, FACP, graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine, where he also did his internal medicine training. Certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, Dr. Fuchs spent three years as a full-time faculty member at UCLA School of Medicine before opening his private practice in Beverly Hills in 2000. Holding privileges at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, he is also an assistant clinical professor at UCLA's Department of Medicine. This post originally appeared at his blog.