Sep 16 2011

Oz Gets Taken to Task Over Apple Juice

It certainly is encouraging to see a health reporter doing some actual no-nonsense health reporting – trying to bring some perspective and meaningful science to the public. ABC News Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser did just that when he took Dr. Mehmet Oz to task over his recent reporting about arsenic in apple juice. On Good Morning America Besser did not pull any punches – he accused Oz of fear-mongering, irresponsible reporting, and using bad science to scare his audience. There was no false balance or weasel words, it was all very refreshing.

The issue is over the safety of apple juice, a staple in the diet of many American children. The Oz Show did a segment where they reported that they found levels of arsenic in some brands of apple juice that exceed the safety levels for drinking water. Here are their results:

Minute Maid Apple Juice

Lowest Sample for Arsenic: 2 parts per billion

Highest Sample for Arsenic: 3 parts per billion

Apple and Eve Apple Juice

Lowest Sample for Arsenic: 3 parts per billion

Highest Sample for Arsenic: 11 parts per billion


Lowest Sample for Arsenic: 4 parts per billion

Highest Sample for Arsenic: 16 parts per billion

Juicy Juice

Lowest Sample for Arsenic: 2 parts per billion

Highest Sample for Arsenic: 22 parts per billion


Lowest Sample for Arsenic: 3 parts per billion

Highest Sample for Arsenic: 36 parts per billion

The EPA limit for drinking water is 10 parts per billion. There is no official limit for apple juice. Sounds scary – a dangerous toxin in the apple juice we are giving to our children.

Now here is the context viewers of the Oz show did not get. The FDA monitors levels of arsenic in juice products. If the level of total arsenic is less that 23 ppb then the product is considered safe. Oz says the level of safety should not be higher than for drinking water, but the reason for this is simple – people drink more water than juice, and water is used in the processing of many foods. The levels are determined by overall consumption.

Further, there are two types of arsening, organic (which is safe) and inorganic (which is toxic). The levels above refer only to total arsenic. When the FDA finds more than 23 ppb total arsenic in a juice product they then do the more complicated test for inorganic arsenic to make sure that is below safety levels. The total arsenic, therefore, is just a screening test, and high levels are only meaningful when the total level is then broken down into organic and inorganic.

The bottom line is that the FDA monitors arsenic levels in the juice products in the US and the levels have been below the safety limits. The Dr. Oz show did their own tests, found levels that are almost entirely below the safety threshold used by the FDA (except the high end of one product), did not compare to another lab, and then arbitrarily decided to compare these levels to the safety limits of drinking water (without explaining the difference) in order to manufacture a non-existent health concern.

It’s no wonder that Dr. Besser was concerned about the reporting of Dr. Oz. Irresponsible fear-mongering seems like an appropriate description.

What makes the reporting worse is that the FDA contacted the Dr. Oz show warning them that their reporting would be irresponsible. Here are the letters from the FDA. The FDA did their own testing, and found lower levels than the lab used by the Dr. Oz show – below that of even the safety limits for water. They further explained the difference between organic and inorganic arsenic and how that factors into their safety monitoring. The Dr. Oz show apparently ignored all this, and chose instead to contrive a scare, leaving out all the information necessary to put the facts into their proper context.

Oz, in the face of Besser’s harsh but appropriate criticism, retreated to the position that bad reporters often retreat to – I was just trying to start a conversation. In other words, don’t trust my conclusions, I just wanted to toss the issue out there, not present a definitive treatment of the issue. He just want to “bring clarity” to the issue – but instead he has just muddied the waters. This is a lame cop-out. In my opinion, the Dr. Oz show blew it. Not only did they do a terrible job of reporting this issue, they appear to have gone out of their way to manufacture a fear out of nothing. Dr. Oz is doing some further retreating, saying that he is not concerned about the short term safety of apple juice, but rather the safety of long term exposure to arsenic. And this concern is based on…nothing, apparently, expect his attempt to save face  in the aftermath of this abject failure.

My advice to Dr. Besser is to not back off. You are in the right on this issue, and you are just doing your job by exposing the blatant fear-mongering of Dr. Oz. The Dr. Oz show did raise an important issue – health fear mongering and irresponsible reporting for ratings by medical celebrities.

44 responses so far

44 thoughts on “Oz Gets Taken to Task Over Apple Juice”

  1. mhunt3 says:

    It’s no surprise that Dr. Oz is misrepresenting data and giving only part of a story to support his position. What bothered me the most was the comments that people left on the AP article. Most of the comments showed a complete mistrust of the FDA and a blind following of Dr. Oz. The FDA should consider a campaign to improve their reputation and gain the trust of the public.

  2. Todd W. says:

    Thanks for writing about this, Dr. Novella! I agree that Dr. Besser did a great job confronting Dr. Oz, and I’m not particularly surprised that Oz, as I mentioned over at Harpocrates Speaks, took the “I’m just asking questions” approach to defending himself. What is sickening is that Dr. Oz didn’t take any responsibility for his fear-mongering, even when one father on his show, full of guilt because of this, said, “I’m the guy administering poison to my own children.”

  3. ccbowers says:

    How does Mr Oz sleep at night? Is he OK with profitting off of the fear of others? Does he swim through his gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, after he miseducates and lies to the public?

    Just asking questions.

    Apparently he thinks that it is his job as a medical professional to raise questions to add to the unecessary anxieties of the American public, instead of answering questions to provide clarity

  4. mindme says:

    Is there an Andrew Wakefield end game here? Create a panic and then release your own “safe” alternative. Dr. Oz is planning some line of “toxin free” fruit juices?

  5. tmac57 says:

    mhunt3 makes an important point regarding the comments on the AP article.It is always disappointing to me to see those kinds of knee-jerk emotive responses to what SHOULD be a question of science and fact.There sure does seem to be a large segment of our population who just can’t get their minds around the idea that maybe a daytime TV doctor is not the most reliable 1st choice of health information.

  6. tmac57 says:

    mindme- You can bet that the OZ show checked that they didn’t step on the toes of any of it’s sponsors before airing that show.

  7. ccbowers says:

    “Is there an Andrew Wakefield end game here? Create a panic and then release your own “safe” alternative. Dr. Oz is planning some line of “toxin free” fruit juices?

    Or: “Dr Oz’s chelation therapy so you can avoid poisoning your children while giving them the juice they love.”

  8. ccbowers says:

    “…maybe a daytime TV doctor is not the most reliable 1st choice of health information.”

    You implication is true, but it shouldn’t be. We should have reliable information from a “daytime TV doctor,” and I hate the shift the blame to the public because that is far more difficult to influence. There are a lot of gullible people out there and it is extremely difficult to counter misinformation at that level.

    Health information is highly specialized, and it is not unreasonable for people to listen to an educated professional, even if on TV. The problem is determining good information from bad information for people not really educated on these subjects. Someone who takes a populist approach and is (apparently) charming like Dr Oz is very convincing to some. They feel he is “on their side”

  9. Todd W. says:


    That’s the approach I was taking in my post, that someone like Dr. Oz, who has a huge audience and medical credentials, needs to exercise caution and good judgment when they speak and do things. He has the ability to influence a lot of people, even if only for a short time, but that can do a lot of damage. He ought to know better.

  10. tmac57 says:

    ccbowers- I hear what you are saying,and I agree that it shouldn’t be that way,but the situation is what it is,at least for now,and anyone who thinks that medical information given on commercial TV in a popular format has a credible track record of reliability,has not been paying attention. Even the arguably better PBS has fallen prey to the CAM nonsense in some cases.
    I am not saying that all medical information on TV is garbage,just that there is such a mix of nonsense and alarmist content mixed in with some factual content,and that a prudent consumer would be better off not using it as a 1st choice of information,and at least do their homework to check out what they do see.
    I also would not blame the public for the content,but they are the ones who will ultimately have to make their own heath decisions,so somehow there has to be a shift toward better content,and that pressure can best be applied from the consumer end. I guess that’s what this blog and SBM and the like are all about:Educating the masses to think more critically.

  11. Ash says:

    I wonder what Dr. Oz would say if he looked into arsenic concentrations in rice (hundreds of ppb), or seafood (thousands of ppb total arsenic, and as high as about 200 ppb inorganic arsenic in studies I’ve seen)? Without an understanding of factors like intake rates and bioavailability the concentrations alone are pretty meaningless.

    Also, lots of communities have natural arsenic concentrations in water above the US EPA limits, but it’s natural so it must be ok, right? (at least according to alt-med pseudoscience logic)

  12. robm says:

    Good to see Dr. Oz get taken to task for this, especially by the network that airs his show. Hopefully this is will put a dent in his ratings. This has been a good year in the fight against Oz, first Steve made an appearance on his show, now his bs is getting the treatment it deserves.

    Well actually the treatment his bs deserves is to be ignored by everyone, and the fact that alt med toxin scaremongering is news shows just how popular he is. Still good to see him taken down peg.

  13. robm says:

    Anyone wanna bet he’s already done or will soon do a show about the wonderful health benefits of apple juice?

  14. Todd W. says:


    Well, his site has a “mocktail” recipe that uses apple juice and states “The apple juice can improve lung function.” And another page under “Dr. Oz Recipes” says, “Apple Juice prevents the loss of an important neurotransmitter called acetylcholine which is critical for memory and brain health.” Not sure what hand Oz has had in those posts.

    But, there is a drink he “swears by” called the Anti-Aging Green Monster Drink, which uses apple juice.

  15. SARA says:

    # mindme
    I don’t think Oz has a Wakefield end game in mind. He has to come up with compelling shows, which requires a constant in flow of interesting ideas. Fear creates interest. They undoubtedly deliberately chose to run the show without FDA info, because to include the information would make the entire show pointless.

    Even the ABC segment gives them credibility with the segment of the population that is willing to believe that all government is corrupt.

    # mhunt3
    I agree. The FDA suffers as much as any government organization from the tendency to only appear in the public mind when problems occur, often problems that FDA was supposed to monitor or stop in the first place. Or reports that the FDA is taking too long to approve something and causing the sick to suffer. It makes them appear to be weak and ineffective. Its very hard to overcome such a perception unless you can make everyone step back and see the bigger picture.

  16. Thomathy says:

    If he does do a show about the wonderful health benefits of apple juice, I would wager that he’d promote some sort of all-natural, organic and unpasteurised product. The funny thing is that such a product might actually contain more arsenic and being unpasteurised would actually make it quite dangerous.

    The man knows nothing if he doesn’t know how to make money off add revenue. I’m willing, actually, to give credit to marketing like that to producers. Perhaps Dr. Oz is just a lazy, talking head. I really can’t imagine it being a fulfilling lifestyle to be wealthy as well as morally and intellectually depraved -as he seems to be.

    It’s sort of interesting, in a morbid way, to watch the decline of Oz. It seems as though he’s getting less control over the content of his show as time progresses. There was a time when I wouldn’t have thought he’d do anything quite as drastic as fear mongering over apple juice. This is a particular low, among a series of depth plumbing lows. It’s quite telling that he’s actually had to defend his quackery this time.

  17. ccbowers says:


    I guess what I’m saying is that for cases like these, it makes more sense to approach the problem from the top down, because the bottom up approach (e.g. education of the public in critical thinking) is a long and slow process. Also if we can improve the content, it will also make the bottom up approach more effective. Of course these are not mutually exclusive, and both are done simultaneously.

  18. PharmD28 says:

    what an ass..

    Anyway, quick question Dr. Novella:

    When I put this up on my facebook, I think some parents will invariably glaze over and ask “why is there arsenic in apple juice anyway?”

    I am not sure of the answer to this personally, but would like to know in order to be ready with a response….and indeed some will read this and look to find some “natural” form of apple juice that doesnt carry “the concern for long term safety”…is there such a type of apple juice that would have 0 ppm of arsenic? Just thinking ahead about possible questions that may arise.


  19. PharmD28 says:

    oh, and just another thought..I mix 50/50 water (tap) and juice with my toddler…so unless we use some sort of other type of water, then its just about moot, the whole concern for long term toxicity that is…..

  20. Todd W. says:


    When I was looking into the story, it seemed that arsenic was pretty ubiquitous. Not quite as common as, say, aluminum, but still an abundant element. It’s my understanding that, unless companies chelate the hell out of their apples/juice, there will always be some level of arsenic in apple juice.

  21. ccbowers says:


    It is from the soil and ground water in which the apple trees grow. In addition to the amount found normally in the ground and soil, arsenic based pesticides were used in the past, which increases the level of arsenic in the soil of these areas to this day (despite arsenic based pesticides not being used in the US for decades). For perspective, keep in mind that these levels are still measured in ppb.

  22. ccbowers says:

    … when I originally read the title of this post, my first thought was alarmism about cyanide in apple juice. I guess that is too obvious, and has already been done

  23. daedalus2u says:

    Lead arsenate was once used as an insecticide, in orchards.

    Arsenic was used in chicken feed until quite recently (this past spring), and so chicken manure from chickens fed that feed had considerable arsenic. That chicken manure was used as fertilizer, even on so called “organic” farms.

  24. Will says:

    CBS News online linked to this post and quoted you!

  25. PharmD28 says:

    Thanks for clarifying…so bascially it is naturally occurring and practically unavoidable, and chelation of 5 ppb would be meaningless…it may be worth mentioning that based on what you all are saying that this small amt of arsenic is “natural” in apples, so that must be good…hmmm wonder too if we can eat apples to fend off arsenic poisoning 😀

    Going to share this on my fb now…will see if any folks come out of the woodworks….

  26. tmac57 says:

    Will- Thanks for the CBS News online link.Here is the relevant text:

    What’s the bottom line? Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale University and an outspoken critic of iffy medical advice appearing in the media, said Dr. Oz’s dubious warning about apple juice had an upside. On his blog, Neurologica, he wrote on Friday, “The Dr Oz show did raise an important issue – health fear mongering and irresponsible reporting for ratings by medical celebrities.”

    Win for DR. N. !

  27. RyanJLind says:

    The comments on this article are just so, so discouraging. The consensus is that Dr. Oz is a hero for alerting us to a “potential problem” and Dr. Besser is being paid off by the drug companies to cover problems up. Sigh, are people really this intellectually bankrupt? It’s just so depressing. At least the poll is (barely) in favor of science.

    I think you are right. Dr. Oz is more damaging to the public than arsenic.

  28. rezistnzisfutl says:


    I had the same experience on that Oz article and am amazed at how many people just blindly fall in step behind this guy without hesitation, and that the FDA disavowed the information practically made it worse with these people, that suddenly in their minds the evil FDA is in collusion with the apple juice producers in order to maintain profits and they’re just trying to shut down a hero to the people. I think it goes to show the seemingly prevailing attitude of mistrust of establishment of any sort, good or bad, of anti-education, and of government in general, whether there’s basis for it or not.

    I wonder if, in the past, there was such and environment where quacks like Oz and Mercola thrived. I don’t remember people like them having a lot of mainstream attention, but perhaps I just wasn’t aware of it then. It’s disheartening to see so many people so easily shammed by these guys, and they swallow their nonsense hook, line and sinker without question at an alarming rate. Case in point: when I posted a comment in that article in opposition to Oz’s unsupported and unfounded claim about apple juice, I got flamed like nobody’s business. I suppose it shouldn’t really surprise me considering how the US ranks in education among the world.

  29. Mariposaland says:

    Firstly, the FDA only screens a small amount of food and drink imported into the US. What Dr. Oz is *trying* to do is to make people more aware of the choices they are making. How many people were actually aware that the apple juice you are buying is imported from countries where the use of arsenic as a pesticide is still legal?

    He’s also making a valid argument that there should be limits to the amount of arsenic allowed in juices and fruit nectars that are imported. It doesn’t matter how much juice the FDA thinks your family is drinking, there still should be a limit.

    Third, although organic arsenic is safer than inorganic, there is no science that says it is COMPLETELY safe. There have been animal studies done that show that organic arsenic can be metabolized and turned into inorganic arsenic. We don’t really know the long-term effects on human health.

    The FDA, the manufacturers, and the juice association all had the opportunity to come on the show and dispute his science and they all declined. They’d rather take potshots at him and spin the PR machines after the fact than to truly take part in a debate about food safety.

    The simple fact is knowledge is power. Someone needs to make people more aware of the possible risks they take when they go to the grocery store. If it falls to Dr. Oz to do it than I hope he keeps it up.

  30. drzolla says:

    I’m a huge fan of critical thinking, scientific skepticism, and medicine…Oh, and of Dr. Novella! This is just one more example of the best-of-the-best, what we have come to expect from the educated, ambitious and truth-seeking leader of “Skeptics Guide to the Universe.”

    The only thing I love more than Dr. Novella taking ‘Oz’ down a few notches (it was no mistake that I left off the “Dr” title) is when he calls attention to OTHERS who are doing it, too. Thank you for pointing out Dr. Besser’s effort to expose ‘Oz’ for the money (and ratings) grubbing sell-out that he is. We need more people in the world like you and Dr. Besser; honest, straight-shooters who rely on science, reason, evidence and the truth. I am, and will remain a huge fan. Great job, keep up the excellent work, and thank you, again.

  31. eean says:

    It would be nice to see the safety of organic arsenic given the science-based medicine blog treatment.

  32. Jake in LA says:

    Is his name really Oz?

  33. zen_arcade says:

    As expected, most of the comments on the GMA site demonstrate that Oz’s audience are only reinforced by criticism (no matter how reasonable) from outside the cult. It is nice, however, to see him being called out in any setting for his sensationalist, irresponsible fear mongering. Stuff like this takes years to undo, as we all know.

  34. zen_arcade says:

    Also @PharmD28, this is from the FDA’s website:

    “Organic and inorganic forms of arsenic can be found in soil and ground water, and as a result, small amounts may be found in certain food and beverage products.

    Arsenic-based pesticides were commonly used in United States agricultural production up until 1970, when more effective substances became available. As a result, trace levels of organic and inorganic forms of arsenic can be detected in some agricultural settings, which may lead to small amounts of arsenic in certain foods and beverages.”


  35. banyan says:

    @Mariposaland: Regarding the FDA setting limits: the FDA regularly tests imported apple juice for arsenic and continues to consider it a low priority for regulation. When it was determined that bottled water contained inorganic arsenic, it set limits. The FDA has limited arsenic contents in lots of products, but it would be a waste of time to limit contents of every dangerous element in every product consumed by humans just-in-case. I’m not seeing any evidence that FDA is acting in bad faith here. Unfortunately, with this publicity, their time is being wasted on a meritless scare rather than being spent on more pressing issues.

    Regarding the safety of organic arsenic: I’m not familiar with the evidence on this, but so far everything I’m seeing other than from Dr. Oz is saying that it is safe. Regardless, a naturally occurring chemical that is regularly consumed by humans without any evidence of toxicity should be presumed safe until evidence of danger is presented.

    Regarding appearing on his show: Why would they appear on his forum rather than issuing a press release, as they did? Dr. Oz’s show is pushing an agenda; he is not press.

    Finally, regarding consumer education: Deceiving people is not education. And presenting questionable information in a way that makes it seem more dangerous than it is is deception.

  36. PharmD28 says:

    “The simple fact is knowledge is power”

    So after Dr. Oz checked some apple juice samples and found that they had normal amounts of arsenic in them…his data retrieved added what knowledge? If all that he was wanting to do was to bring to everyone’s attention that some things come from china and there is concerns to that degree…big freaking news flash….we are so enlightened now…

    Now if Dr. Oz tested a much larger sampling of apple juice over time and found high levels that would raise concerns or produce data that actually mattered, then I would applaud him…but as it stands all that he did was prove that apple juice has a tiny amount of arsenic in it, then said it was a more than acceptable amount incorrectly, then had to retract that….

    And if Dr. Oz is trying to say something new and different about our regulation of these products, about what is “acceptable levels” of arsenic…then his data and supportive argument should reflect that fact….and it didnt.

  37. Nitpicking says:


    ‘The comments on this article are just so, so discouraging. The consensus is that Dr. Oz is a hero for alerting us to a “potential problem” and Dr. Besser is being paid off by the drug companies to cover problems up.’

    Drug companies? Why would pharma companies care about apple juice? Are the woo-lovers so confused they don’t even know what the words they are using mean?

  38. locutusbrg says:

    In the end it will all end up in more viewer/ratings and more money for Dr. Awful.
    No such things as bad press for a daytime talk show. Ricky Lake’s rating went up after she indirectly contributed to a suicide. If my child’s school started to outlaw apple juice in the school. I would be asking the committee, what other decisions about education they are making based on a daytime talk show?

  39. tmac57 says:

    “Local school committee tars and feathers a person who goes by the name ‘locutusbrg’, who they claimed to be trying to ‘Posion our little children!!!’…Details at 11… Next up…Are ‘Reality Shows’ giving us cancer!!!?”

  40. RyanJLind says:

    @Nitpicking, oh probably. Here’s the quote:

    “Gma’s doctor was incredibly rude to Dr. Oz this morning. How much was the doctor paid to shoot down Dr. Oz? It’s so obvious the food and drug industries pay your paychecks. Good to see this behavior today. You guys have lost a ton of fans today.”


  41. sonic says:

    I watched the video of Bessler and Oz
    Bessler– “Bottom line– are you still telling parents their children are being poisoned by apple juice and they shouldn’t drink it. Are you standing behind the claim that apple juice is poison?”

    Oz– “Rich– I never said that…”

    Perhaps I have an odd sense of humor– but use of the straw man “Still beating wife” gambit always gets a smile out of me. 🙂

    It seems Oz has three interesting (maybe not true but provocative) points-
    1) From a consumer perspective–If you want apples grown by USA standards- buy apples grown in the US. (I am reminded of toys)
    2) From a health policy perspective- The FDA does not currently have a standard on this and he is recommending one.
    3) From a biochemistry perspective- He is saying that organic arsenic isn’t necessarily as safe as is currently calculated. Apparently there is some evidence to support that claim.

    I tried to watch the actual segment in question. I couldn’t download the whole thing and I couldn’t even watch what I did download with attention.
    I’m not going to start watching the show, but I bet a lot of other people will.

    Variation in a species is a good and necessary thing. Just keep telling yourself that. 🙂

  42. SteveA says:

    Sonic: “maybe not true but provocative”

    You seem to suggest that the ‘maybe not true’ part isn’t that important. Anyone could come up with endless provocative statements that ‘aren’t true’. The issue here is that Oz is posing as a responsible medical doctor giving advice – he should make very sure that what he says ‘is’ true.

    Sonic: “perhaps I have an odd sense of humor– but use of the straw man “Still beating wife” gambit always gets a smile out of me.”

    Since you admit you haven’t seen the show, how would you know whether this is a straw man or not?

  43. VRAlbany says:

    @ Nitpicking and RyanJLind

    The Ag industry is in collusion with Big Pharma to keep poisoning our little children and the population at large, so that we keep getting sick and have to live off drugs our whole lives.

    Also, the government is in on it too because all the politicians are getting kick backs, and a down-trodden populace is easier to control.


  44. sonic says:

    Your statement that I don’t know that Dr. Oz didn’t say something based on the fact i didn’t watch the entire tape is based on a premise that is false on inspection– that is– The only way to know what was said would be to watch the tape.
    False on inspection. Cool, huh?

    A responsible medical professional gives his best advice based on his current knowledge.
    I have no reason to accuse Oz of doing other than that.

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