Arsenic in wine: A news update, but not a scientific one

The news this morning is full of pieces on Kevin Hicks, proprietor of a consumer-oriented wine analysis company called Beverage Grades, and the class action lawsuit he’s bringing against multiple California wineries for selling wine with arsenic concentrations far exceeding what the US Environmental Protection Agency allows in drinking water. Many of the reports are emphasizing the “wine may kill you” side of this story.

Mr. Hicks contacted me by way of an email and a suggested arsenic-in-wine story — for which he advised me I could pay him by check or PayPal — a little over a year ago, which prompted me to write this post on whether wine consumers should be concerned. My admittedly brief scan of the literature suggests that no new scientific research on wine and arsenic has been published in English since then. I’ll stand by what I wrote in 2014. The key points:

  • Arsenic is definitely found in wine. It’s also found in many other foods and beverages. Arsenic is, in fact, naturally present in water and soil, and unless you’re part of a special population, drinking water is your primary source of dietary arsenic.
  • Researchers have found evidence of higher arsenic intake in wine drinkers, but also in people who drink beer and who eat rice, fish, and/or Brussels sprouts. (Exemplar references here and here.)
  • The FDA regulates arsenic levels in apple and pear juice, but not (yet) in wine. Dietary arsenic isn’t well understood, and whether we have good evidence for the current “safe” cut-offs and what those cut-offs should be has been discussed for decades.
  • Our current best evidence indicates that arsenic in wine isn’t a health concern. It’s fair to say that every food and drink we consume brings minor amounts of potentially harmful substances into our bodies. Risk assessments say that the amount of arsenic in wine doesn’t pose a threat to consumers. (Exemplar references here and here)

The wines indicted in Hicks’ lawsuit weren’t a major part of the studies I’ve listed above. His data may show something amiss with these specific wines, but he hasn’t shared either his methods or his data. When I looked at Beverage Grades a year ago, I was disturbed by the complete lack of detail offered to back up awarding specific wines badges like “HealthyPour™.”

I’m uncomfortable with Kevin Hicks and Beverage Grades’ tactics of withholding rather than being transparent with information, damaging at the best of times and ironic in light of his accusations. If third-party labs can back up Hicks’ claims in the course of this lawsuit, we may well have something to talk about: ways to reduce arsenic levels in wine, new regulations, and/or renewed scrutiny of the EPA guidelines. But until then, the healthiest thing to avoid is likely the inflammatory news headlines.

4 thoughts on “Arsenic in wine: A news update, but not a scientific one

  1. Arsenic seems to a be a grape pulp problem (not unexpected if it is coming from plant available water that is high in Arsenic). During winemaking it is reduced by skin contact, as the skins absorbed this and other material. Hence I can understand why the recent ‘scare’ is related to white wine brands. This was shown in this nice paper by Aguilar et al. (1987)

    So if you are sacred about Arsenic, drink Orange wines ; )

    • Thanks for the link, Tony. My point here is to emphasize how we probably don’t need to worry about choosing wines specifically for low arsenic levels — we very likely don’t need to worry about arsenic in wine at all unless you’re downing five or so bottles a day, in which case you have bigger problems. But heck, if you’re out there drinking five bottles a day, go for reds and oranges.

      • I agree with all the points you made in the article, Wine Orange or otherwise is generally safe (excluding the ethanol content).

        Its also good to know that science has already considered many of these less obvious health risks, with diligent scientists and years of studies conducted into arsenic and other heavy metals, mycotoxins such as Ochratoxin A, spray residues, biogenic amines, sulphites and other allergens etc ensuring that that risk are understood and quantified .

        Saying that, the industry should remain vigilant and and adopt a continuous improvement philosophy in all areas of food safety

  2. Pingback: Arsenic in Your Wine? | Edible Arts

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